Your kid’s joy is not your job

Sometimes letting kids get upset is the best thing you can do for them. Why tears and tantrums are actually healthy, and how to ride them out.

Photo: Roberto Caruso

At a recent family get-together, after my mom, a notorious kvetcher, had spent a half-hour complaining about my dad not listening to her, about the internet going out and, unbelievably, that there were too many blueberries in the crumble I’d brought for dessert—too many!—my five-year-old son turned to her and said, “Nana, you get what you get and you don’t get upset.” It was a line Jack’s kindergarten teacher had used on him and his classmates many times, and his deployment of it, with unerring timing, cracked us all up. (Well, everyone but Nana.)

But thinking about it later, I wondered: Was the sentiment really that helpful? And what was it actually teaching? Sure, in a kindergarten class of 30-odd needy, loud kids of various temperaments and skill sets, it’s a great way to manage expectations and short-circuit excessive grumbling. But it also discourages children from expressing negative emotions. And denying negative emotions—whether you’re effectively telling them to “buck up,” as in this situation, or appeasing them to the point where any expression of anger, sadness or frustration is quickly extinguished—can be extremely detrimental to a child’s development.

Gwyneth Penman sees this all the time. Penman has taught kindergarten and music for 25 years, has two grown kids of her own and teaches at E.P.I.C. School, an independent Toronto institution that specializes in early childhood education (ages three to six). In her view, contemporary parents are overzealously protecting their children from negative emotions and doing whatever it takes to keep their kids from getting upset. The result: kids with diminishing confidence and self-reliance. While buzzwords like “grit” and “resilience” continue to dominate parenting discussions, she routinely sees fathers who insist on helping their kids put on their shoes or coat so they don’t experience the frustration of doing it themselves, or mothers at the grocery store who instantly hand toddlers an iPhone at the first sign of impatience.

“Parental attitudes have shifted drastically,” Penman says. “We want to be closer to our kids than our parents were. We’re really much more involved and connected. I think it comes from a good place, of love and compassion.” But that intimacy has led, she argues, to an uneasy identification, in which a child’s apparent joy is now a parent’s responsibility: “What we’ve seen is that parents perceive their children’s happiness as their own success.”

baby crying in mom arms Why do kids cry so much? The science behind sobbing In fact, you’re not doing your job as a parent if you keep your kid from experiencing negative emotions. Research has shown that preventing emotional diversity—that is, a spectrum of positive and negative feelings—can be counterproductive and potentially harmful. Children who can’t express their emotional needs are more likely to become adolescents who engage in high-risk behaviour, including substance abuse, according to a recent paper in the Journal of Child and Family Studies. And a 2015 study of male undergraduate students at the University of North Carolina found that those who’d been punished by their mothers for expressing negative emotions had more anger-management issues than undergrads with more supportive moms.

“People, in general, are afraid of angry feelings,” says Lindsay Barton, a registered psychotherapist who also teaches at the University of Guelph-Humber. “There’s an interest in eliminating angry feelings as quickly as possible. And in that process, you don’t allow the child to know what anger feels like and how to process it. And then that gets displaced.”

Negative emotions were short-circuited in a different way when I was growing up. I vividly remember my dad punching me in the arm when I was eight or nine so I would stop punching my sister in the arm. I was told to “be tough” when I got hurt and “stop whining” when something wasn’t going my way. But the pendulum has swung from parents being too tough or dismissive to being too coddling. As Barton points out, parents who overconsole or shield their kids from those difficult emotions are basically doing the same thing, on the flip side of the coin. “Thankfully, we’ve moved on from the detrimental effects of physical punishment, but when people used spanking to discipline their children, that was an intolerance of angry feelings, too. We don’t like tolerating angry feelings,” she says. “A baby cries, and we want it to stop.”

Avoiding anger and pain, Barton says, is something humans have always done. But parents are also trying to avoid sadness, discomfort and inconvenience—both their child’s and their own. Every September, in her kindergarten classroom, Penman says she’s confronted with four-year-olds who haven’t been given adequate opportunities to practise self-regulation. She sees kids whose parents permit them to interrupt, who don’t make them put on their own shoes, who even let them skip school.

Penman believes it’s part of her job to undo this training, to help kids experience unpleasant emotions, practise them and learn from them. That also can require retraining parents—or at least showing them the connection between their kids’ emotions and their development. “Kids are going to fight,” Penman says. “Kids are going to cry. It’s so important that we let them do it. Your kid is going to get frustrated when he puts on his snow pants, but you have to let him put on his snow pants. Because if he can’t put on his snow pants, he can’t do anything else. I had a dad who said to me, ‘You’ve had my kid for two years now, so why can’t he print his name?’ I looked at him and said, ‘Because he’s still struggling to put on his snow pants.’ The guy made no connection between the two things.”

After Jack was born, I vowed I would never accuse him of whining. But, of course, he’s a kid, and kids do whine. They have tantrums. At least once a day, Jack gets angry about something I have or haven’t done and tells me he’s no longer “my friend.” I generally let him feel those emotions, but when those emotions get overwhelming—when he hits me or my wife, for example—I do occasionally yell at him. We take away toys and TV shows. More often than not, I try distracting him, by changing the subject, making a joke. But all of these techniques are, more or less, avoidance strategies. A more valuable and helpful approach, according to Penman and Barton, is to acknowledge the feelings you both have. “Even if you lose it,” Barton says, “the child learns how to manage their emotions when you repair the angry feeling.” After you’ve calmed down, rather than simply punishing your child, let them go through the emotion they’re feeling. Validate it. Let them know why their behaviour upset you, acknowledge that you also feel bad for losing control, and then endeavour to work together to feel better.

“There’s increased pressure on parents to be good parents, to not fail as parents,” Barton says. “If you’re out in public and your kid’s acting out, you feel that anxiety. But it’s going to end. Whether or not it ends with you rushing out of the store, without your groceries and with your kid under your arm, it’s going to end. And in going through those emotions and getting to their inevitable conclusion is another lesson your child will absorb: You can’t feel joy without also, sometimes, feeling sadness.

Read more:
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3 steps to instilling grit and gratitude in kids

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