As a family therapist I witnessed many children experience incredible losses and crises which often left them feeling sad, frustrated, angry and hopeless. I have also had children in my everyday life feel disappointed or mad because they didn’t get a treat they wanted or feel sad or rejected because they weren’t invited to a friend’s birthday party. Regardless of the child or the situation, it is difficult to watch children deal with this range of “negative” feelings. Most parents want to protect children from feeling any pain. However, I must admit that I have learned that not only is it impossible to protect the children in my life from negative or painful feelings, it is often not as helpful as I would have hoped.
Years ago I had the honor of working with a very strong and resilient 5-year-old girl. She had experienced incredible trauma in her life, compounded by her mother’s death. When I met her she was living in foster care and was beginning to feel safe enough to share the losses she had experienced in her very short life. She often became tearful as she shared her memories of her mother and expressed anger about her mother not being there for her. Her foster mother, who was a very caring and compassionate woman, would often try to soothe the child by offering explanations and words of comfort. She would say things like, “Your mother is in heaven with the angels,” or “Your mother isn’t really gone, she is lives on in your heart.” The girl’s response? “I don’t care – I want my mom!”
The foster mother’s attempts to comfort and remove pain had the opposite effect. What the girl wanted was comments that validated her feelings. Statements that reflected her feelings like, “You are sad because you miss your mom,” had much more of an impact than any attempts to protect her from her pain. When her feelings were accepted she would continue to share them and any acts of rage or yelling would cease.
We need to accept and allow children to express their full range of emotions. When we listen, we show children that their feelings are real and important. Accepting children’s feelings also doesn’t mean we have to accept every way their feelings are expressed. Parents can validate children’s feelings without supporting negative behaviors that occur as a result, though this can be be quite tricky. As children’s behaviors escalate it is natural to want to redirect the negative behavior and “get the child under control.” What has worked for me is to first validate the feelings and then direct the behavior. By doing this, the children in my life have felt heard and understood which has often resulted in a decrease in the negative behaviors.
No matter how hard it is to see a child upset or in pain, I have found that the best way to soothe and comfort is to accept how they feel. Likewise I have found that the best way to respond to a happy child is to accept their joy and join in on their fun!