“You sad, Momma?” asked my 2-year-old daughter. I quickly replied, “No! Momma is happy, don’t worry!”
I had been watching the news. There was a mother grieving for the loss of her son during the shooting in Orlando last month, and I was overcome with sadness about the pain that she was experiencing. So the truth is, I was sad. Incredibly so. But I had denied it to my daughter.
By constantly telling children to “turn that frown upside down,” our society sends them the message that being sad is almost unnatural. That it is something that needs to be fixed immediately. I find myself trying to protect my child from any emotion but happiness.
In my work as a physician I have seen increasing numbers of children and young adults being put on antidepressants. In many cases, these drugs are needed to help with overwhelming emotional issues. But sometimes, they are used as a way to avoid dealing with sadness. We want to give our children a quick fix, but we need to understand that our children are wired for coping with suffering in addition to happiness.
The most effective tool that I have found for dealing with feelings of sorrow is mindfulness, or paying careful, purposeful attention to life. It allows us to acknowledge the emotions that make up our inner world and view them compassionately and without judgment.
In her book “Sitting Still Like a Frog,” author Eline Snel explains how to practice something she calls a “personal weather report” with children. She encourages parents to make time each day to ask their child to describe his internal weather. “What is the weather like inside you? Do you feel relaxed and sunny inside? Or does it feel rainy and overcast? Is there a storm raging perhaps?” Snel writes.
This exercise helps children to understand that their feelings, like the weather, can change from day to day. And by acknowledging them, they learn to identify less with them. “I am not the downpour, but I notice that it is raining; I am not a scaredy-cat, but I realize that sometimes I have this big scared feeling somewhere near my throat,” writes Snel.
By leaning into their sadness and being comfortable with it, children learn resilience. When we understand that we are not defined by an emotion, that it is simply the way we feel right now, we can overcome it. Leaning into our pain also makes us more empathetic to the pain of others.
Perhaps the most significant study on how mindfulness can expand our empathy comes from Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar. She took up yoga and meditation while trying to heal from running injuries, and found that she was more compassionate and had greater empathy for others. Curious about these changes, she decided to conduct a study that enrolled participants in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program. According to the study published in Psychiatry Research, brain scans of those in the mindfulness meditation group showed a thickening in the hippocampus, which is important in learning, memory and emotional regulation. There was also a thickening in the temporo-parietal junction, which is associated with empathy and compassion.
If mindfulness can have such a significant effect on adults, imagine if we practiced it with our children.
I often think about a time when I was working in a pediatric oncology unit and a young boy told me that he thought God had given him cancer because he had made fun of a girl in his school. He felt so dejected, full of remorse and sadness. My heart broke for him, and I quickly told him that his feelings were unfounded and that he did nothing to bring this upon himself. I, along with another physician, tried to make him laugh to brighten his day.
When I think back, I wish that I had allowed him to sit with his sadness for a bit. I should have let him acknowledge his feelings so that he could push past them. Our suffering inspires us to change, and acknowledging it allows us to understand a part of our journey.
So the next time my daughter asks me “You sad, Momma?” I will tell her that I am, and that it is okay. We may be sad, but we are not defined by our sadness. We may be scared, but we are not our fear. These emotions call on us to understand a deeper part of ourselves and inspire change. They are a part of a full and whole human life.
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