Babies cry. We all know this. Our family pediatrician says "crying equals breathing," so when I hear crying, I consider it good news. What I didn't fully realize before having my own children, however, is that some kids cry more than others. There are many theories as to why, but when you're a tired parent, theories are less useful than remedies for putting a stop to that "good news" coming from the other room.
My first child was one of those babies who cried a lot and, for the life of me, I couldn't figure out why. I tried the usual feeding, changing, burping, rocking … but it didn't matter what I tried. He wanted to cry. Scratch that. He wanted to scream. The harder I tried to quiet him, the more he escalated until I finally had to leave him alone in his crib and get in the shower to calm my nerves.
As my baby grew older, his outbursts began to look different, but tantrum triggers remained elusive with no clear remedies. As a toddler, he would cry until he threw up. By the time he was 6, the crying was often replaced by overall grumpiness and dissatisfaction for life.
He hated Legoland because it was too hot and his feet hurt from walking around. He didn't want to go to the movies — ever. He disliked the beach because of the sand, and eating out at restaurants was the ultimate torture to him. At school, he feared making mistakes and worried about not being able to find me at pickup time.
As his mom, I believed it was my job to help my son be happy, to teach him to be grateful for his blessed life, to help him not to be scared. I felt sure that living in so much misery must be awful, and it made me frustrated and sad for my child. Surely, it would serve him well to change, and it was my job to change him.
I lost my patience with him and found myself lecturing him about the importance of choosing happiness. Sometimes, I tried to talk him into not being afraid by explaining how unwarranted his fears were. It didn't work. All the sales training I had from my days in Corporate America did nothing to help me sell my son on being happy. I was exhausted, frustrated and sad.
I'd read countless parenting books and found wisdom in many of them, but it wasn't until I began my training as a Certified Life Coach that I figured out what to do about my unhappy child. It was the same thing that had always worked — the same thing I'd done when he was a newborn. I needed first to leave him alone in his crib to "cry it out," and second to get in the shower so I could feel good anyway.
Of course, there is no actual crib involved, but rather than trying to convince my son to be happy, I've learned the best thing I can do is allow him to feel what he's feeling and give him space. Many adults don't know how to process negative emotions. We only know how to resist and avoid them — and it's no wonder. From the beginning, adults around us taught us (just as I was teaching my son) that feeling happy is best and we should resist feeling sad, frustrated or scared. The truth is, there is nothing wrong with feeling negative emotions. In fact, resisting them is more painful than simply allowing and processing them. Some experts even suggest that resisting negative emotion ultimately leads to depression.
When my son is angry that we are going to the river on a sunny Saturday to hike around, I now allow him to be angry. I don't try to talk him out of it. I tell him we are going to the river and he can feel however he wants to about it — I love him no matter what. Then, we all get in the car and go.
I also allow my son to be afraid if he feels afraid. I believe, perhaps, there are times he is supposed to be scared. I may not know the reasons why, but I know that if I teach him to resist his fears, he will spend his entire life unable to process them — much like many of the adults I work with now. So, I remind my son that I will always find him after school, and I explain that mistakes are allowed, but then I tell him that he can feel afraid as long as he needs to, and I remind him again of how much I love him.
Allow yourself to feel good anyway
I finally realized that I'm in charge of my own emotions. I decided that, while I'll always hope for my son to experience as much joy in his life as he can, his attitude does not define my own emotional well-being. In fact, putting my son in charge of my feelings will only add to his struggle to understand what he is feeling. My son can be grumpy, and I can still be happy — if I choose.
When I took back responsibility for my own emotions, I decided I didn't want to feel frustrated or overly worried about my son. I wanted to feel love and peace, and while I'm still not perfect at this, most of the time I can do it. When I feel frustration rising up, I ask myself, "Why do you need him to be happy for you to be happy? He is a child. You're the adult." I laugh now at the irony of me needing my son to feel something I wasn't choosing to feel myself. I blamed my grumpiness on his behavior, and he blamed his grumpiness on other things. In the end, both of us were unhappy — the difference was that I should have had the emotional maturity to know better.
My son is now 9 years old and still what I would consider to be a contrarian. It takes a lot for him to get excited and not much for him to be disappointed or grumpy. But in the past two years since changing my parenting approach, I've seen my son's resiliency and confidence multiply. He has a goofy sense of humor. He acts silly with his sister and brother. He is a master of the yo-yo and loves learning Taekwondo. And then, some days, he gets grumpy for no apparent reason —but I don't make it mean that something is wrong. This is my son's journey, and I will be here for him the entire way. Our relationship has evolved from one of frustration and disappointment to one of mutual respect and unconditional love. It's not perfect, but it's peaceful.
Jody is a Life Coach at Bold New Mom. She helps women understand how to manage their thinking and emotions to create the results they want for themselves, their families and their lives. http://www.boldnewmom.com