Family health

Negative emotions

Why parents need to accept their child's not-so-nice emotions

By Randi Chapnik Myers
Negative emotions

When I was growing up, my parents were always looking on the bright side. I’d come home upset that my best friend had found a new best friend, and I’d get: “So? Make a new one!” When I’d cry over a frightening poodle haircut, it was, “Nonsense! You’re beautiful!”

Of course, all this positive energy was supposed to make me feel better. But it often had the opposite effect. “You never listen to me!” I’d scream, before slamming my poor bewildered parents out of my room.

I always thought this oh-pull-up-your-socks-already parenting belonged to the previous generation. But now that my kids are no longer babies, I see a disturbing pattern. It seems that I too can’t stand it when they’re down and out. My eldest gripes about practising piano, and I tell him to get over it. My daughter is worried she’ll flub her lines in a play audition, and I tell her to think positive. And when my youngest cries because his beloved goldfish died, I immediately hit the store for a new one.

Sure, we’re only trying to help, but being an eternal optimist actually does more harm than good, experts say. That’s because we’re teaching our kids to bottle up their blues when we should really be encouraging them to face them. So here’s a look at how to shed light on your child’s dark thoughts.

The quick fix

Why are we addicted to seeing our children smile? “It’s so painful to see our kids in pain that we want to take it away fast,” explains Toronto psychologist Sarah Chana Radcliffe, author of Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice. When your little sweethearts are happy, you can relax, knowing they’re doing just fine. But when they’re unhappy, a red light flashes: Uh-oh, there’s a problem you need to fix. The real problem, though, is that if you can’t tolerate your child’s pain, then she’ll grow up thinking pain is intolerable, says Jennifer Kolari, a child and family therapist and founder of Connected Parenting in Toronto.

It’s easy to buy into the myth that happy feelings are good while feelings that make us squirm — sadness, rage, jealousy, fear — are bad. And yet, experiencing the gamut of emotions is normal and, just as you do, your kids will have them every day. So whether your son wakes up angry that he can’t sleep in, annoyed with his sister for sitting in his chair, or shaking in his boots about the test he has to take, those emotions are real and important. And they need to be expressed.

“By insisting that your child’s feelings are no big deal, you are really conveying that feelings aren’t important,” Radcliffe says. That just compounds the problem. Now, in addition to feeling sad, she feels ashamed that she has the wrong feeling and, to top it off, she feels confused because her emotions are telling her one thing and you are telling her another. If you constantly send this get-over-it message, then over time, Kolari says, you will teach your child to mistrust what she feels inside.

And rushing to a solution — like calling a parent when another child is excluding yours at recess, or explaining what you did in similar circumstances when you were young — doesn’t give your child time to process her feelings. “If your child is upset and, right away, you tell him what to do to feel better, he is unlikely to hear you,” Kolari says. That’s because when kids don’t feel heard, they will try to convince you that their feelings are real. Out of nowhere, your child will be slamming you out of his room, or screaming, “You just don’t understand!”

Now, though you were only trying to help, your child is angry with you. And what’s more, you have robbed him of the opportunity to find a solution — even if that solution is just to learn to soothe himself in times of distress.

It’s OK to dispense advice, but not too early in the conversation, Kolari says. First, she says, you have to listen to how your child is feeling, keeping in mind that some kids are more sensitive than others. If yours is the type who has a hard time brushing things off, be prepared to spend a lot more time listening, and less trying to fix.

Letting it all hang out

When your child is angry, frustrated or scared, you should welcome that negative emotion, Radcliffe says.

Your daughter can’t stop crying about a party she wasn’t invited to? First listen, then use a mirroring technique to show that you’ve heard her: “It hurts to see other people excited and to be excluded from something fun.” But be careful to reflect her feelings and not your own, Kolari warns, because if steam starts coming out of your ears, or you look so stricken you may fall over, your child will think, Oh my God, this is much worse than I thought!

Once your child hears that you understand, she just may start sobbing harder, Radcliffe says, because you have shown her that her feelings are normal. And only then will they start to fade so that she can move to the next step — figuring out what to do.

A bonus: Staying quiet while your kids express themselves is a great way to get them to confide in you, Kolari says. “No one opens up to someone who doesn’t get how they feel,” she says. So if you want your children to tell you how they’re doing, she suggests you bite your tongue and start listening.

Karen Mazer put this theory to the test when she was late picking up her daughter, Sophie, at the grade-five play rehearsal, and found herself faced with red-hot anger. “My first reaction was to say anything to defend myself,” the Toronto mom says. After all, she was only a few minutes late. What was the big deal? But rather than out-shouting her daughter, she stopped herself and listened. Then she reflected back what she heard.

“Ugh, I hate when people are late,” Mazer said to Sophie. “Waiting makes me so angry and frustrated. I can see how you feel that way.” And presto, the fury started to fade. In fact, after about 10 minutes, her daughter let something else slip. “And another thing,” Sophie said. “I was on the side of the stage without my friends, and I was all alone and I hated it.…” That’s when Mazer realized that by letting her child have her feelings, she had actually improved their communication. “If I had been defensive instead of supportive, Sophie never would have felt safe enough to get to the real issue,” she says.

Why bad is good

By experiencing feelings that come with difficult scenarios, kids get a better handle on what pushes their buttons. At the same time, they learn just how resilient they are, Kolari says. They start to realize that they won’t fall apart just because life takes a turn they don’t like.

“It’s OK that your son is miserable because he was placed in a class without his friends. But let’s get real: In the work world, he will not be sitting next to the person he likes most,” Kolari says. Yes, you can lobby the school to have the class changed. But you can’t rescue your kids from every challenge they face. And if you try, they will learn that negative emotions are intolerable, Radcliffe says, and that problems can’t be solved (at least, by them) or endured.

What you really want is to help your child build the emotional muscle to handle disappointment or failure, or whatever else life hands out, Kolari says. So let him vent, and be there, nodding and reflecting back. That way, your child learns that feeling miserable happens to all of us.

And yet, sometimes that negativity seems to go on and on, until you want to scream, Enough is enough already! If after all that listening, your child is still wallowing, Kolari suggests you move right on to the next step — a vote of confidence: “Encourage resilience by saying, ‘I know this is hard, but I know you’re going to get through this. I know you’ll be OK.’” “By doing so,” Radcliffe says, “you are sending the message: I can stand your pain, and guess what? You can too.”

Beyond the blues

Your child’s negativity may be out of whack with reality and could signal a more serious mood disorder. Seek help if your child displays these symptoms of depression, as outlined by the BC Health Guide:

1. Grumpy, sad, bored most of the time
2. Not taking pleasure in activities he used to enjoy
3. Showing very little emotion
4. Suffering from constant headaches or stomach aches
5. Rapidly gaining or losing weight
6. Sleeping all the time or hardly at all
7. Experiencing delusions or hallucinations
8. Constantly feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
9. Having trouble concentrating, thinking or making decisions
10. Thinking or talking about death or committing suicide

This article was originally published on Nov 10, 2008

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