By: Janet Lansbury
Encouraging kids to express their feelings wouldseem to be one of the simpler aspects of parenting, yes? Far from it. Our children’s tears and tantrums are messy, embarrassing and extremely challenging to listen to without being reactive.
Discomfort with displays of emotion is embedded in our psyches, perhaps stemming from primitive times when crying children attracted wild animals that might devour the family. Mankind may have evolved, but our instinct to suppress emotion hasn’t, and the urge to put an end to these outbursts can be overpowering.
As a result, most of us find that the commitment we’ve made to our kids’ emotional health — allowing them to express feelings — is not often appreciated (or supported) by those around us. Even fellow parents and beloved grandparents might invalidate our children with their well-intentioned responses: “Shhh. Don’t cry. That’s enough. Here, here. Now, now. You’re fine.” (And those are the kinder, gentler examples).
It’s tough enough being patient and accepting of our child’s feelings. It doesn’t help when we must deal with the well-meaning strangers, friends and family who seem to be undermining the work we’re trying to do.
Laura asked about that on my Facebook page:
“I am curious how to appropriately deal with comments that invalidate my daughter’s feelings. I’m having a hard enough time on my own allowing them. What do I say when others want her to stop having them? I get that I have a greater influence, but it seems that not standing up for her would also send a message. I’d prefer not to turn everyone against us, though!”
The way we might choose to respond depends on the situation and our relationship with these ‘others’.
My 10-year old son is an all-around athlete and an especially talented soccer player. He gets knocked, kicked, tripped – he goes down a lot. He usually gets right back up again, but not because we’ve ever told him he should. On the rare occasion that our son cries, his dad and I trust that he needs to. Even then, he usually gets his feelings out and is right back in the game.
So when another parent gave my son the “shake it off, be tough” treatment recently, I had no problem ordering the parent to leave him alone. How dare he interfere! I was angry, and although this dad is thick-headed, I think he realized that he was out of line (thankfully, he’s thick-skinned, too, because we’re still on good terms). Most situations, however, require gentler handling. Here are a few suggestions…
When you have “say”, say it
Give clear directions to teachers, caregivers and family members whom you know are willing or open-minded. Assure them that it is totally okay with you if your child cries when you leave and that you hope they’ll support your child to fully express his or her feelings (about your departure and anything else that comes up during their time together). Sometimes people just need our permission. And when these teachers and caregivers allow your child to feel, your child’s trust in them grows and closer bonds are formed, which is good for everyone.
Acknowledge, empathize, model
When a friend or family member makes an invalidating comment, our most thoughtful response is usually to empathize with the adult and our child. “Oh, it’s so hard to hear those sad feelings, isn’t it? It is for me, too… Joey, I hear you crying about the water spilling on you. That’s upsetting for you, I know.” While you empathize and acknowledge everyone’s feelings, you are also modeling respectful, sensitive parenting. Try to stay calm. This is primetime. You should feel proud of this accomplishment.
If you don’t have the opportunity to validate your child’s feelings in the moment, do it later. Again, the key is an honest acknowledgement of the situation. “I know Aunt Lou said you were “fake crying” and that you shouldn’t be afraid of the dog. That wasn’t right. Not everyone understands you like I do. If that hurt your feelings, I’m sorry. I’m sure she didn’t mean it that way. You are always safe to show your feelings with me.”
Now, I certainly don’t have all the answers, so I’m really hoping you’ll share what’s worked for you…