Later, a third child leans in for a hug, her body wracked with sobs. She grieves for a friend who is in a dark place, and his recent transformation from a happy-go-lucky, preppy boy to a sullen individual dressed in oversized flannel shirts, a hoodie shielding his eyes as he struggles with depression. “I don’t know who he is anymore! I don’t know how to reach him, and I miss him.”
All parents want their children to be happy. Nevertheless, we will at times be confronted with the necessary reality of having to guide our children through the rough waters of turbulent emotions, because sometimes . . .
Children are grumpy.
Children experience disappointment.
Children become overwhelmed by grief on another’s behalf, or by perceived injustice as their worlds expand beyond the cocoon of early childhood.
Children become angry, and often that anger is directed at us.
We may wish we could shield our children from these difficult times or bear the pain on their behalf. Our job as parents, however, is not to shelter our offspring from the storms, but rather to steady their ships and to help them gain independence in navigating the negative feelings that are very much their own. But how do we do that?
Offer a consistent haven. Children need to feel safe enough to express their feelings. It may take time for some to find words to convey what they are feeling. Pressuring our children to talk too soon about their intense and personal emotions may backfire, so it’s important to give them time and space. When a child is dealing with complicated reactions to events and interactions, we can give them room to spend some time absorbing their thoughts alone.
When my daughter expresses anger or frustration, I sometimes allow her to stay in her room and listen to music with the door open. I find a quiet chore to do nearby (without hovering) so she knows I’m close and available when she’s ready to talk.
Listen. Part of being a safe haven for our children includes biting our tongues and holding our advice until we have heard the full story from the child’s point of view and we have given them time to reach their own conclusions and possible solutions (unless they ask for our advice).
Initiate conversations in non-threatening, non-confrontational environments. Many parents find that car rides offer the ideal setting for having meaningful conversations. While driving, parents can offer their full attention to their child without the pressure of eye contact. Others may find that taking a walk together or participating in another joint activity can provide the best opportunity for conversations to naturally occur.
Offer comfort through touch. When young children hurt, we instinctively pick them up, offer a hug or snuggle, or hold their hands. Even older children long for physical affection. A hug, a loving back rub or simply holding hands can go a long way in giving comfort and reassurance without having to say a word. Older children and teenagers need us to continue to provide the physical connections they crave.
Distraction can help. Gently proposing a snack or a rest can be a good idea. Sometimes children get emotional because of hunger or fatigue. Food and rest can meet a need they may not have known they have. Other times, humor or participating in a shared activity such as baking or preparing dinner can diffuse difficult situations. Playing music in the background that is conducive to singing along or even dancing is another positive diversion.
Make use of time outs – for the parents. We cannot get sucked into our children’s emotional turmoil. We have deep connections to our children that may occasionally make it difficult for us to remain objective. At times our emotional interactions with our children may become a struggle for control of a situation. One way to avoid falling into the trap of self-defense is to say “I have said everything I am going to say and I will not argue about this.”
When we feel as though we are losing control of our emotions, we need give ourselves permission to take a short break to regain perspective. After emotions have settled, a short conversation may help the child name his or her emotions and to brainstorm about ways to handle similar situations in the future.
If not kept in check, the emotional turmoil of one child may set the mood for the entire family off course. Our challenge is to give our children the space to express the negative emotions that are a normal part of growing up without bringing the rest of the family on board. Through modeling positive behavior and having clear, consistent boundaries, parents can teach children that negative emotions can be expressed without being rude, mean or self-destructive.
Emotions are a natural part of the human experience. We need to help our children identify, manage and react to their emotions. Having consistent, responsive and caring interactions with our children throughout their emotional ups and downs gives them refuge from their personal turmoil. Children take comfort in the fact that family structures, routines and their parents’ love will be there despite the perceived ferocity of their emotions.
Merete Kropp is a child development and family specialist and mother of three. Merete can be found at familynurturance.com and @nurturance on Twitter and Nurturance on Facebook.
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