Why is it that when we try to calm kids down, they sometimes get more worked up? Our intention is to be soothing. To teach them that this tiny bump in the road of life can be driven over without crashing the entire vehicle into a ditch. It will be OK! But the message they hear is a different one: “You can’t have what you want and I don’t care, because your feelings are not important enough to bother about.” Now the distress is doubled—added to the original disappointment over the missing granola bar is that lonely feeling you get when you realize nobody cares that you’re sad.
It’s true that for adults a granola bar ranks way down on the scale of global disasters. But for a disappointed kid, that missing treat is just as upsetting as any of the petty disasters that befall us grown-ups during the day. Your annoying coworker constantly uses your pens and doesn’t replace them? Stop complaining. It’s not a big deal! Your friend shared your personal health problems with the whole neighbourhood? You’re overreacting. Don’t be so sensitive. The mechanic overcharged you to repair your transmission; it broke down again a week later and he wouldn’t give you a refund? Hey, that’s life! No use getting upset about it. Don’t get mad at us. We’re just trying to help you by explaining why you’re wrong to feel bad. It’s pretty infuriating when our own disappointments, admittedly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, are summarily dismissed. When someone tries to calm us down by minimizing our troubles, we end up feeling worse—and we may even direct a fresh wave of irritation at the person who is trying to help.
We desperately want to give kids some perspective. They can’t go through life falling apart over every little thing. It’s part of our job to help them learn what’s important and what’s not, isn’t it? But the timing is wrong. When you’re upset because your new shoes were stolen at the gym, that’s not the moment you want your friend to remind you to be grateful you have feet. And when you lose your feet to gangrene, you don’t want your friend coming over the day after the amputation to remind you that you’re lucky because there are people who don’t have legs. No doubt that will be a helpful perspective at some point in the future, but for right now you’d probably appreciate a little sympathy instead of a pep talk. We may understand intellectually that we shouldn’t try to talk people out of their misery in their moment of distress. But we still have a powerful urge to minimize or dismiss negative feelings, both for our kid’s sake and for our own. When kids relate their tales of woe, we naturally try to convince them it’s not that bad. They respond by dialling up the intensity to convince us that it is indeed that bad. We react with frustration, and before you know it everyone involved is sucked into an escalating spiral of irritation. The more we try to douse the flames, the hotter they get. It turns out, we’re pouring gasoline on the fire instead of water.
OK, fine, so it’s not helpful to try to get kids to look at the bright side or to tell them that they should suck it up and stop whining because their problems aren’t so bad. Now what? Sit on the couch with noise-cancelling headphones? We present to you a set of tools you can grab when a child is in emotional distress.
Tool #1: Acknowledge feelings with words
Instead of arguing that the child is foolish, or wrong, or rude, or overreacting, stop and ask yourself: What is this feeling? Is she frustrated, disappointed, angry, annoyed, sad, worried, scared? Got it? Now show your child you get it. What we’re looking for is the kind of thing you’d say with genuine emotion to a friend with whom you truly empathize. “That sounds scary.” “Oh, how disappointing!” “What a frustrating situation!” “It sounds like you’re really annoyed with your ________ (brother/teacher/friend) right now.”
Tool #2: Acknowledge feelings with writing
There’s something about the written word that makes a kid feel like she’s being taken seriously. Even children who are too young to read are often delighted to have their thoughts written down and read back to them. The writing may take the form of a list—a wish list, a shopping list, a list of worries or grievances.
Tool #3: Acknowledge feelings with art
Art can be a powerful tool when strong emotions are in play. And the good news is, you don’t have to be an artist. Stick figures will do just fine! Sometimes children will want to jump in and show you their sad or angry feelings with the help of a pencil, chalk or crayons. Even Cheerios have been employed to create a sad face that lets kids know we understand how they feel.
Tool #4: Give in fantasy what you cannot give in reality
When a child wants something that’s impossible to have, our temptation is to repeatedly explain to them why they cannot have it. “I already told you, we can’t go swimming now, honey, the pool is closed for the day. There’s no use crying about it.” These kinds of exercises in logic seldom persuade a youngster to accept reality. She’ll cheer up more quickly if you say, “Oh, I wish the pool would stay open all night. We could go swimming in the moonlight!” Next time you find yourself wanting to jump in with a dose of cold, hard reality, take a moment for whimsy instead. Tell your child you wish you had a magic wand to make a bathtub full of ice cream appear, you need some robots to help with cleanup, it would be great to have a clock that freezes time so you could have a hundred more hours to play.
Tool #5: Acknowledge feelings with (almost) silent attention
Sometimes just a sympathetic sound is enough. Resist the urge to lecture, ask questions or give advice. Instead, simply listen with ohs, ughs, mmms and ahs!
Excerpted from How to Talk When Kids Won’t Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King © 2021 by Joanna Faber and Julie King. Reprinted with the permission of Scribner.
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