It's a scary question, but ask yourself, "How do I react when my child is upset?" "What do I communicate?"
When we tell our children to stop crying or to get over it, we invalidate their feelings. When we play down something that has upset them and tell them it doesn't matter, we are essentially saying what they are feeling is wrong or, at least, not very important.
None of us set out to invalidate our children's feelings. But I don't think our society is necessarily great at emotion (especially where I live in the UK), and often the signals we send to our kids come from our own discomfort with emotion and tears. So, we tend to invalidate our children's feelings because we are just not willing to go there.
A simple story from my own life about my son and a teddy bear re-taught me the importance of validating children's feelings.
A lesson on validation
My eldest son Harvey started school this year. Not so long ago, after weeks of waiting, he finally won "star of the week." My wife and I were very proud, but the real excitement was for Harvey. He got to bring home the class teddy bear for a week.
It was an eventful week with pictures taken in all types of settings and U-turns made in the car to go back home because we had forgotten to bring the bear with us. It was lovely to see Harvey take care of something and look after it so well.
But then came the last night. He didn't want it to go back to school! I had feared this was coming, so I should have been more prepared. It started off with him simply talking about it, but by bedtime he was in a bit of a state. He even woke up during the night, upset the teddy bear was leaving us.
In many ways this was his first experience of loss at this level. Yes, it is just a toy—and, boy, did I come close to telling Harvey so—but to him it was clearly far more than that. I am guilty at times of a lack of empathy, and I often fail to see the world the way my children do. (My wife is so much better at this.) However, on this occasion I simply stayed with him where he was and attempted to validate his feelings.
I have no idea if I helped or not. I didn't stop Harvey from being upset, and the next day, when he gave the stuffed animal back, he was still upset. However, I do know if I had simply implied he needed to man up and get on with it, I would have been telling him he was wrong. Underneath my words would have been the message, "What you are feeling is wrong."
The other pull I felt with this situation was to promise Harvey a replacement: either a new bear or another gift or treat to take his mind off giving her back. (How many times have I used this strategy for an easy life?!) But I felt a deep conviction on this occasion not to do that. I recognised the sense of loss he was feeling, and my heart broke for him. I also recognised the benefit of allowing him to fully experience this.
The importance of feeling loss, sadness and pain
In the grand scheme of things, a teddy bear is relatively trivial, and I'm sure it will be forgotten over time, but this bear got me thinking. You see, if I'm honest, I don't think we fundamentally want our children to experience loss or pain or be upset or feel anything negative at all. The temptation is always to shield them from these emotions—to trick, treat or cajole our children out of feeling them.
But here's the thing: negative emotions are just as important as positive emotions! The process of life naturally flows in ups and downs, from minute to minute, day to day, month to month and so on. It's what I call the heartbeat of life.
We are emotional beings that function on a foundation of feelings. We may try to iron out the downward trends. But all we actually do when we push away the negative emotions is close the door on feelings in general. For every low we push away, we diminish our ability to feel the highs as well. We rob ourselves of feeling the positive emotions to their full extent. We move closer to "flat lining."
"The walls we build around us to keep sadness out also keeps out the joy."—Jim Rohn
Our children do not want or need fixing. When they are upset they want us to be with them, not do for them. To be with them is to empathise, validate and walk with them. To do for them is to distract them, down play what they feel and attempt to fix their problems. We often succeed at lifting our children's moods, shortening their downward trends and … moving them closer to the "flat line."
I love Disney's "Inside Out." The various characterised emotions in the girl's head are constantly trying to downplay Sadness. Sadness ultimately goes AWOL, but Sadness and Joy go AWOL together. The two are inexplicably linked. The result for the girl is she "flat lines." She closes down, prevents herself from feeling and begins to lose who she is.
I have certainly built my fair share of walls, and they're not easy to break through. Let's not encourage our children to build the same walls, and let's stop building the walls for them! Instead let us help our children find who they are though their whole range of experiences and emotions.
This article was originally published on Enjoy the WIP. It has been republished here with permission.
I am an educator, trainer and coach with a passion for Family (cornerstone of society) and Education (future hope). Husband to Shell and Dad to 3 very little, very exhausting and very beautiful boys. Learning how to enjoy the Work in Progress.