Allowing Negative Feelings
One of the more difficult aspects of being a parent is dealing with our children's negative feelings. There are a number of reasons why this is so, some of which come from our own experiences with parents and some out of a need to see our children happy. If you come from the old school of parenting, then you learned as a child that expressing your negative feelings such as anger, disappointment, sadness, frustration, and so forth, was a sign of weakness, or perhaps it signified that you were just being ill-mannered or self-centered.
The Problem with Suppression
The old saying "If you don't stop crying, I'll give you something to cry about," captures one sort of attempt to suppress such feelings in children. Another approach is to ignore the negative outpouring while also bombarding the child with as many positive anecdotes as you can in an attempt to maybe cover up or overcome the situation. Yet another attempt is simply to fix the problem so that the negative feelings disappear. In each of these cases the end result is the same: the child senses that the expression of such feelings is not okay and that it would be best to try and suppress them.
This can have far reaching effects not only for children, but also for adults who have successfully learned to suppress negative feelings. The problem is that emotional suppression usually leads to other deleterious effects on our overall functioning and happiness. By suppressing our negative feelings and reactions, we create holes in reality that leave us second-guessing ourselves and prevent us from knowing the full picture of who we are and what we can do. In other words, the suppression of negative feelings ultimately ties up our good feelings too so that we find ourselves operating in very tight, rigid boxes that constrict the total personality and leave us sometimes with inexplicable reactions such as depression or anxiety.
For parents, it is important to learn how to allow our children to express their negative feelings, and then to channel those feelings into positive activity. This is much more difficult than it may sound because what is required of parents is that they actually contain their children's pain at times without trying to get rid of it, suppress it, or simply by-pass it. It might help to begin by looking at how we go about suppressing negative feelings and reactions and then discussing a corrective method for allowing them.
Approaches that Miss the Mark
Here are some of the most common approaches parents have to dealwith negative feelings that aren't really in the best interest of the child. See if you can find yourself in any of the types that are discussed below.
The Fix-It Approach
The "fix-it" approach is aimed at taking away the child's pain as quickly as possible, almost before it can be felt. Let's say Suzie comes home from school and is very upset that several of her friends have been invited to spend the night at Joanna's house on Saturday, but Suzie wasn't invited. Mom reacts by whisking Suzie off to the mall and buying her several new outfits of her choice, and then maybe taking her out to lunch with a promise to have a slumber party of her own in several weeks. Suzie reacts well. Within no time at all she is smiling and looking forward to her slumber party.
You might ask, "So what's wrong with offering a slumber party as an alternative here?" Well maybe nothing, however, the problem is that no time was given for Suzie to adequately feel and express her disappointment and hurt at being left out. Worse yet, Suzie is being taught a coping mechanism that will cause her problems down the road: When you're feeling disappointed or unhappy, reward yourself. Go shopping!
There is nothing wrong in cheering up your disappointed child, but first it's important to let her have the experience of the disappointment, and then help her figure out the best way to cope with it. Moreover, the cure must be something that will have healthy long-term consequences, not create a new problem behavior or habit.
The "Just Get Over It" Approach
This one goes along with the "just put it behind you" approach. Going back to Suzie's situation, Mom might say, "Hey, everyone gets left out sometimes. Come on, just smile and shrug it off." That doesn't really sound so bad. After all, it is true that everyone experiences rejection at some time or another, and it is something we all have to deal with sooner or later. The problem in this scenario, though, is that the feelings have not been dealt with at all, but rather the message imparted is to just get rid of them without giving them any attention whatsoever.
Over time, children interpret the "just get over it" approach as a value judgement in which negative feelings, particularly those that cause emotional pain, are weak or silly and maybe even unacceptable. As the child practices "getting over it" quickly and succinctly, they may develop the even more dangerous habit of not allowing themselves to feel painful reactions at all, but to suppress them before they come to the surface. This is highly dangerous because it nullifies the capacity to listen to certain emotional warnings that are necessary to make healthy decisions. The young man who has learned not to feel rejection may plunge headlong into relationships where he is repeatedly rejected and trammeled upon because he can't access his own emotional warning system.
The "Children Are Starving in China" Approach
This one might sound quite familiar to many of you as one your parents used quite often. Someone is always having a more difficult time than you are, and that translates to mean your feelings are not important in the larger scheme of things. Suzie's hurt feelings about being left out of the slumber party is nothing compared to the pain starving children feel. Well yes, that is true. But does that mean that Suzie shouldn't feel any pain at all at being left out?
Yes, that's exactly the message Suzie is being given. "Your feelings really aren't important here, because others feel more pain than you do." It can be helpful to place your own seemingly negative circumstances within the larger picture sometimes. It can allow you to draw yourself out of a sort of wallowing, self-pitying pattern. However, it is important to first learn how to feel, express, and understand your own reactions before figuring out how best to cope with them.
It's fine to help children gain a larger picture of humanity, and in fact it's a good idea. It's not a good idea to use that picture to mollify or belittle a child's emotional pain, no matter how trite it may seem to the adult. It's through the experience of our own emotionally painful experiences that we are able to understand and identify with the pain of others.
The "My Problems Are Bigger Than Yours" Approach
When Jeremy has a melt-down on the way home from school because he couldn't find a picture he drew that day in his backpack, it can feel like punishment after a long day at the office where you were criticized by your boss, saddled with too much work to do in too little time, and had to deal with gossipy co-workers that were taking stabs at each other. The most natural response to Jeremy would be to say something along the lines of "Knock it off. You don't know what trouble is!" And, of course you are right. He has no idea what it's like to be in your shoes.
The difficulty here is that what's needed is to separate your stress from Jeremy's experience. By overpowering Jeremy's feelings with yours, you are communicating to him that his feelings are insignificant and not worthy of consideration. Parents who consistently meet their children's emotionally painful expressions with statements like "just wait until you're an adult," or "why don't you watch the news for ten minutes" are sending the message that such feelings should be suppressed and worse yet, not addressed.
A Better Approach
So how should parents deal with children's negative emotions and expressions? The first rule is to simply allow them to occur. This is not so easy. It means that parents must be able to endure the feeling expressed and at the same time encourage a thorough enough expression so that the child feels understood. In essence, what this means is that the parent plays the role of facilitator and container at the same time. You facilitate the expression of the emotion while also containing the feeling without any attempt to get rid of it, bypass it, or suppress it.
Facilitate the Expression
Let's take these two tasks one at a time. To facilitate the expression, you need to draw out the feeling by asking leading questions, listening carefully to the responses, and reflecting back what is heard. Going back to Suzie in the early example, let's walk through the process. As Suzie comes in the door from school and tells you she is very upset, you would respond by asking questions about exactly what happened, how she learned that the other girls had been invited to the friend's house, where was she when she heard about it, how did she feel when she heard about it, and what did she do next. Maybe she cried, or went to the bathroom so no one would see how she felt, or maybe got mad. You want to get an almost visual picture of what happened while keeping very attuned to the development of feelings along the way.
Maybe Suzie felt hurt at some points in the process, disappointed at others, and perhaps angry at being left behind. Help her elaborate not only the events, but also her feelings along the way and her emotional reactions. As she tells you what happened, reflect back to her what you think she is saying. It's like a check and balance to be sure that you understand what happened, how she felt, and as a result, can now really empathize with her.
Contain the Emotion
That's the facilitation piece. Now for the containing piece. Actually, this takes place as you facilitate the conversation. By allowing Suzie to recount every facet of the events along with encouraging her to verbalize the emotional process that took place, you are communicating your ability to understand how she feels while also imparting your concern and caring. You are letting her know that you are able to sustain her painful feelings and are not afraid of them, angered by them, or unable to hear them.
As she tells you about them, you are in fact emotionally containing them for her so that she can gain some space from them and some control over them. More importantly you are sending the message that life has its disappointments and that she is strong enough to endure them and work through them. How does she know this? Because you are containing and sharing her feelings in a way that shows strength and acceptance.
In some instances, the expression of the feelings are all that is required and necessary. In many cases, however, there is another step that follows which is to problem-solve. In Suzie's case, it would be important to find out if she has had other trouble with these particular friends. Or perhaps she needs to develop some other friendships if the girls in question have been routinely rejecting or cruel. It might also be that Suzie has contributed to the problem in some way, but has no awareness of it.
A thorough examination of all the possibilities would help Suzie learn to analyze problems to see if there are ways she can resolve them. Having her own slumber party as mentioned above might be just fine once she has thoroughly worked through her hurt feelings and analyzed the situation to see if she has somehow contributed to it.
Whatever the solution, the important thing is that you are allowing your child to have the experience of emotional disappointment, rejection, hurt, frustration, anger, or whatever the feeling or combination of feelings may be. Secondly, you are teaching her how to express these feelings verbally (as opposed to acting them out). Third, you are fostering self-examination and insight that will become invaluable as your child gets older. Finally, you are teaching your child how to channel negative feelings into positive actions through a process of problem solving.