Welcoming Emotions - April Showers...
It’s okay. You don’t need to cry about that. You’re all right. Stop crying, or I will give you something to cry about. HAVE A COOKIE. That’s enough. Do you want a drink? Look at this. It doesn’t hurt. Don’t be a baby. You’re the big kid now. You’re Fine. We are not here to whine. That’s not hot. That didn’t hurt. I will get you a new one – will that make you happy? I don’t want to hear it. Go to your room until you have control of yourself. Don’t you talk to me like that. You don’t want that… Just Stop Crying! You love your little baby. You can’t be hungry - you just ate. Don’t be that way Come on - you love carrots.
It is so easy to tell our children that they aren’t feeling, or shouldn’t feel what they are feeling. Sometimes without even realizing it, we shut them down. Let’s face it, whether we are aware or not, it is usually more convenient to avoid displays of messy emotions. Without meaning to, we give children the message that their feelings are “bad” or “wrong”. When their feelings make us uncomfortable or embarrass us in public, we wish them away. Instead of letting feelings come and go, we teach our children to stuff their feelings down inside themselves and to make them disappear to stay in our good favor. But, the truth for all of us is the same - once we have a feeling, it cannot just evaporate until it has been felt and acknowledged. Once our emotions are stuffed, they are out of sight - and any chance of control over them is gone. Our bodies cannot handle so many feelings stuffed away. So, emotions begin to leak out - or sometimes burst out, into a tantrum.
Only spoiled brats have tantrums - right? Wrong. Every child has tantrums.
Honestly, most parents have tantrums too. All people, big and small, need to
manage, regulate and have emotional releases. It becomes easier once we learn that Big Feelings Come and Big Feelings Go.
What if we reframe tantrums as big feelings just looking for an opportunity (often in the form of an empathic limit set by us) to be let out? Instead of telling our children that they are not, or should not, be feeling what they are feeling, let’s begin Welcoming Emotions instead. All Emotions. Everyone has the right to their own feelings, even if we disagree or think the feelings are inconvenient, unnecessary or ridiculous.
My *client Jesse was telling me the story of his day with with his son Jack, age 3.5. It was a special father-son afternoon. Jesse said that it started off badly, out of the gate. It was a chilly, foggy morning and he wanted Jack to wear a long sleeve shirt and jacket. Jack insisted he wasn’t cold and didn’t need more than his special short sleeved zoo t-shirt. Jesse told him it was cold and he needed long sleeves. Jack started to cry and Jesse told him it was silly to cry about putting on a coat. When Jesse threatened to cancel the whole day, Jack complied. When they got to the zoo, Jack was hungry, so they had an early lunch. They headed toward the chimpanzees and Jack said he was still hungry. Jesse told him, You can’t be hungry - you just ate! Throughout the day, Jesse said Jack kept complaining it was hot in his whiny voice. Jesse admitted he got pretty frustrated and told Jack, We are not here to whine, we are here to have fun. So stop whining! On their way out, Jesse stopped by the gift shop for Jack to pick out a stuffed animal, as promised. Jack chose a snake, but then he wanted a little polar bear too. He started to cry, so Jesse got him the extra toy to avoid a scene. Jesse said they were almost to the car, when Jack tripped and stubbed his toe. Jesse said Jack lost it. Jesse told him he was fine, there was no blood, that he didn’t need to cry so much. Jesse said he didn’t understand why Jack is so whiny and cries about every little thing.
As Jesse replayed the day to me, I noticed that he was shutting down Jack’s feelings. So, what could he have done differently?
Pick Your Battles Jack declared he was comfortable with short sleeves - why argue? It takes two to make a power struggle - and it is important to encourage our kids to trust their bodies. He might have said, Alright. You don’t feel cold. I think it’s chilly, so I will bring a long sleeve along for you and if you change your mind, it is available. The truth is kids have higher metabolisms and are often warmer than we are. If we give them the power over knowing their comfort level, they are likely to ask for the extra layer, if they need it.
Respect is Reciprocal Jack’s tears were caused by his frustration at being told he was wrong about not feeling cold. Telling him his tears are silly, only insults, embarrasses and shames him more! Strong-willed kids have integrity. They are willing to stand up for their feelings and beliefs. To me, this is a trait to be nurtured. When we shut down their feelings, we break their trust and our connection to them - and they harden their hearts to us. If Jesse had brought the long sleeve along, the power struggle would have been avoided entirely and they would have left happily together.
When...Then If he were refusing to put his shoes on, then a When...Then would be in order, instead of a threat. When your shoes are on, then we can go.
Listen to Your Body Jack says he is still hungry after having eaten and again, Jesse tells him he is wrong. He can’t be hungry, he just ate. Now, maybe he just wanted ice cream - who doesn’t. If Jesse wanted him to have something healthy, that makes sense too. But instead of Jesse telling Jack he is wrong, he could have said, Wow. You must be growing. Have a drink of water and let’s give our tummies a five minute rest. Listen to your body. If you are still hungry, we will find some more fuel for that growing body!
Where’s Your Big Strong Voice Whining is like nails on a chalkboard to most parents. And a three year old in the heat, who is also probably getting tired, often equals a whine fest. At this point, we have to take some responsibility. We have them out on a big adventure and it is hot and they are tired - so what do we do? Find shade, something to fan them with and help them look for their Big Strong Voice. Is it here? I heard it just a minute ago. Did you drop it back there? Is it hiding in the stroller? Where can it be? This game often gets them laughing, which always helps take the edge off as it increases connection, while you get them that shade and cool water.
We Have a Right to Our Feelings I’ve noticed that when kids get something, they often want something else. We have to decide what the limit is and hold it, with empathy. If it is okay for them to have two toys, then get a second toy. But, if we are getting the second toy because we don’t want them to cry, then there is a two-fold problem. One, is we are teaching them to cry if they want something. The second thing is, what they hear is, My parents are so afraid of my feelings that they will do anything to keep them from showing. Wow, those feelings must be really scary! When we stick to the plan of one toy, your child might not like it - and that is okay. He might need to cry about it and we can be there to empathize and help him deal with his disappointment. Once he has let his feelings out, he can move on. He learns that he doesn’t always get what he wants, but he has parents that understand and will help him manage his disappointment. He learns that he can handle being disappointed and that feelings come and they go.
Welcome Emotions Jesse thought Jack’s reaction to his stubbed toe was bigger than the injury. Looking back, we see how many times in the day that Jesse shut down Jack’s feelings, which were stuffed away each time. When a child has a big reaction to a little bump or scrape, it is often their way of letting out some stuffed away feelings. As kids get older, they cry less and bumps and bonks are often used in this way, because in their mind it is still a legitimate reason to cry. It is wise of us to welcome those feelings, knowing it’s not really about the stubbed toe. Once those feelings are out, they feel so much better and are free to be their most affectionate and cooperative selves.
When we Welcome Emotions, we are also increasing our connection to our child. Connection Creates Cooperation. Instead of trying to control their reactions and behavior, we Welcome Emotions - as we lovingly guide our child through the ups and downs in their day.
A friend shared this poem with me recently. Rumi so beautifully explains the importance of Welcoming Emotions, like we would a visitor. Once we have welcomed and honored the guest, and received its gift, it is free to go and leaves us open for the next visitor.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks
*Please note all names and situations have been changed to protect privacy.