Tip of the week: How to allow your child to have emotions without losing your mind

I grew up in an era where you brushed the dirt off your knees, sucked it up. and went on with life. 

You were proud to bootstrap it through life, knuckle down, and power through. 

Difficult circumstances weren't dealt with like they are today. I was bullied by mean girls, sexually harassed at a very young age, and learned that women were seen as emotional basket cases that can't control themselves. 

And it was all pretty normal to me. 

The awareness wasn't there yet (or rather ignored) that these things were real issues in kids' lives, affecting them on a deeper level that would show up in adulthood.

Thank goodness it's different now. But when you're raise on a mindset of "you'll be fine," it can feel like there's too much awareness about these topics where no one is fine. 

It seems strange to that our kids might need something different than what we experienced. 

I would almost get defensive if someone told me to be gentler, calmer, and more patient. With anything.  

Where was my protection when I was being bullied? Or harassed? Or made to feel small and insecure? No one was there to help me. I'm fine!

Except I wasn't fine, I was just telling myself I was. Because we learn to cope and get through life and deal with the hard things it throws at us. We adapt and maneuver around challenges. But that doesn't mean we've got it all figured out. It doesn't mean its the right way, it's simply the only way we know. 

If someone gave you the vaccine for anxiety and depression in the form of a pill, would you keep it from your children just because you had to suffer through it and "it'll make them stronger"? 

Of course not.

By that logic, it's worth looking at the very things we've been working so hard to avoid. 

Emotions are uncomfortable. 

Can we just say it out loud? Let's address the elephant in the room. 

Research shows that our babies have a cry that is perfectly pitched to get on our very last shred of a nerve (or as science would say - activate our care-giving instincts) so that we pay attention to them and give them what they need. 

It's exhausting, but you do it anyway. Babies are helpless and can't do a thing on their own. It makes sense. 

What's harder to grasp is the more advanced emotions of a 7- or 10-year old who has the full range but not the understanding, vocabulary, and maturity to cope with what's going on inside of them. 

They can talk to you all day long and as long as they're happy and content, behaving well, everything is cool. You enjoy them. "This is nice" you muse to yourself. 

But when they have the tantrums and the frustrations and the stomping-offs for "no reason"... holy fucking hell. (Why did I have kids even?)

It was very easy for me to just send my son to his room when he lost his cool. To let him chill out. To not deal with it AT ALL and just assume that he would pull his shit together and get on with it. 

It's super easy to forget that they have no clue what's going on in their little bodies and don't know how they feel. 

It's easy to have unreasonable and unfair expectations because he's great at school and is a deep thinker, assuming his emotional maturity would match mine. 

And so I'd get mad at him for getting mad. 

"Look at all the things I do for you!" (me yelling)

"You're so ungrateful. I work all day for you and this is the thanks I get!" (still yelling)

I'd make it about me. 

And looking back this is obviously ludicrous and poorly handled. Hindsight is 20/20. 

What I didn't have was the tools to do it differently. I didn't know what to do INSTEAD of the chaos that I was creating. 

I didn't even think about him needing his own emotional support. Because no one gave it to me. I had no idea how to give it. 

And while a lot of us live and die by this kind of excuse (it's not my fault I'm this way, I'm the victim here), it's not helping anyone and we're still responsible for how we show up and behave. 

When I came across growth mindset for MYSELF purely by accident, it trickled down into my family. I started parenting better, having more patience, seeing the need for other people to be heard and seen and understood. 

I started giving myself permission to have emotions. I started to have empathy for where others were instead of being upset that they were upset. 

The problem wasn't my kid. The problem was I didn't know how to have emotions, and so other people's emotions confused me. I didn't know what to do. 

And this is where so many of us live. 

We're ill-equipped to deal with grief, frustration, fear, and even JOY. All we know is our own stuff and we're too afraid to let that out where others can see it. 

How often do you say "I'M FINE" when you're not actually fine? 

Which means sitting with the uncomfortable emotions of others while they pour their hearts out? HELL NO. We don't want to deal with those. 

No wonder none of us are connected anymore. Or feel like we're part of something. Or lack that close friendship with anyone. We simply don't know how to connect and be vulnerable, or even be brave enough to say "I don't know what to say." 

Any time we hear someone has passed away, we don't know what to do. How about people you know dealing with depression? Or divorce? Abuse? 

We fucking disappear. We don't know what to do and so we run and hide as a society. 

Or we try and fix it. Give advice. Here's a bandaid. "Well at least _____" and try to make the other person feel better in the most insulting way possible. 

We make it about US. Our discomfort provokes us to slap a quick fix on our loved ones (and ourselves) and get back to being FINE. 

Can we quit with the I'M FINE? 

This is doing our children no favors. 

Instead, we have to do the hard thing of allowing them to have feelings -- even when we are clueless and don't know how to handle it. 

Even when it seems like this is one tantrum too many and they need to pull it together. 

Even when it's mega-embarrassing because it's the middle of the grocery store and your second grader is having a meltdown. (Toddler tantrums are more socially acceptable of course!)

Even when it's making you late. Or making them late. And the fact that anyone is going to be late actually makes it worse because everyone has anxiety from not having permission to FEEL things.  

I get it. 

These are weirdly specific examples because I've lived every one of them. 

And I learned how to knock it off, which changed everything. 

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Here's what you do in your own house with your own kids: 

1. Let them freak out.

Seriously. They've got to get it out. Teaching them to squash it and hold it in is what leads to chronic stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and compromising your immune system. This is important to do. 

It's gonna suck. You'll be embarrassed at some point. Go ahead and accept that part, be ready for it, and prepare how you can.

There's no way for them to learn to self-regulate if we're always regulating for them. 

I finally had to allow my kid to scream and be physical - it was what he needed. This doesn't mean he gets to hurt others, damage the house, or put himself in danger (more on boundaries in #4 below), it means he gets to be upset however he needs to be upset. 
 

2. When they're calm, empathize.

Meet them where they are. Validate those little emotions. Not when he / she is screaming, but after they've had a few moments to stop seeing red. 

Talk about how they were feeling. Be incredibly understanding and get in to what they were experiencing. Be on their side, even if their side is irrational. 

"That made you really mad when I said no you couldn't _____. I'd be mad about that too! You really wanted _______ and it feels unfair that I said no. I can tell that was really important to you."

Ask questions if you're not sure

- What else were you feeling?
- Can you tell me what happened? 
- What did you want to happen instead? 
 

3. Problem solve with compassion. 

It's easy to want our kids to match us emotionally, but then turn around and talk down to them. Remember they are people, they want respect and kindness just like anyone else. 

As you stick to your guns about whatever needs to happen, stay calm. Talk to them and explain instead of bossing and demanding. 

This is where patience truly shines! You can do this. 
 

4. Make a plan for next time. 

Emotions can't and shouldn't be avoided. But you can think ahead and involve your child in helping them have some ownership over their own emotions. 

- Help them find and create a calm-down space that is only for calming down and not for discipline. (We had confusion as they were the same place). Make it special. Add things that they want in that space to have a few minutes to catch their breath. 

- Work together to come up with a calm-down timeframe. 5 minutes, 10 minutes, it could even be 30 minutes. The number doesn't matter. All that's important here is that it works for your kid and they agree on the amount of time. 

Have your freakout, and then problem solve. 

 

Surprise - this takes effort, practice, and a heap of self control on your part. Our kids trigger the hell out of us and this is HARD to do! 

You're learning together, so don't expect yourself to be perfect the first time. Deep breaths, you're in control. 

It can be done. It is worth it.

I've seen changes in the level of intensity that my son has now that he's free to express himself (with boundaries) and knowing he can trust me to talk it out calmly with him after. 

He doesn't get nearly as upset as before and the bounce-back period is much shorter. He knows we can solve it together. He knows I'm on his side. 

Not only are you helping them work through their own emotions, you're establishing a closer relationship and building trust between you.

And isn't that what we've been after all along?