Let’s face it— our children are feeling machines. And sometimes their emotions can arise at inopportune times— the meltdown as we’re heading out the door. The tantrum just when the family has sat down to dinner. Sometimes even in public places where you feel like the worst parent in the world and want to crawl under a rock (but you can’t because your child is screaming and flailing and there’s nowhere to go).
It is NORMAL to have these experiences. In 11 years as a child therapist I have never met a child who hasn’t had these experiences and I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t feel sometimes frustrated, overwhelmed and upset with their child’s emotions.
But children are little feelers. And as a child, their emotional development doesn’t yet allow them to process their emotions in more smooth, calm ways (and let’s face it, most adults aren’t able to do that either). There are two parenting strategies I often see that can actually be counter-productive to getting what we want with our kids— the harmony, peacefulness and fun.
Resistance is pushing back on their emotions. Unconsciously conveying a message that they are too much, their emotions are not ok. It’s the eye rolling, the, “Stop it”, “That’s enough.” “You need to calm down right NOW.” “There’s nothing to cry about.” “You can go to your room.”
This is where children internalize “I’m too much. My emotions are not safe. I am ashamed of my emotions. When I have emotions, I lose connection. I am not fully lovable because I’m not lovable when I’m having big feelings. I can’t have what I want when I have emotions”
Children are feeling beings—let’s consider it their JOB as kids to feel big feelings and process these emotions with us (because they aren’t equipped to do it on their own). When we resist their emotions, we teach them to stifle a part of themselves that is normal, organic and needs to be expressed. It shuts down a part of them that needs to have a voice.
Rescue is just what it sounds like. Rather than let them experience disappointment, loss, sadness, we cave and give them what they want (the TV, the treat, etc) because we aren’t comfortable with the emotion they’re needing to experience.
If they’re having a meltdown because we gave them waffles instead of pancakes, we make waffles. We bend in order to avoid their emotions. Which is very scary for kids—because they shouldn’t have that degree of power (it’s scary for them), it teaches them that their emotions are not safe. That they can be used in manipulative ways even though it was never their intention to manipulate. And it implies that we can’t handle them, so we’re just going to do the easiest thing to stop having to deal with them.
So what do we instead? We lean in to the emotions. We validate and give them genuine space to work through their feelings without shame or shut down. We let them know that it’s safe to feel what they’re feeling and that we are here to help them manage those big, hard feelings.
Notice if either of these is something you do or have done (and you’re not alone—I have too : ) )
If it is, take some time and journal. What is hard for you about your child’s emotions? What gets triggered in you? Did your parents resist, rescue or both?
No parent is perfect and I wouldn’t expect that of any of us. But the more we become aware of our patterns and the way our “stuff” is acted out with our kids, the more we can shift to respectful, authentic ways of parenting where everyone’s emotional experience can be expressed. As we make this shift, parenting becomes FUN, enjoyable, harmonious, and we see it as an opportunity to grow and become our very best selves.