I had to break some hard, hard news to my sweet, sensitive middle girl last week, and it was rough. The whole time, I had this thought running through my head. “Tears are good! Tears are healing, and exactly what she needs right now.” Everything in me wanted to cheer her up, and skip the hard part, but I kept holding it back, and let her cry.
This is new for me. As I shared in my last post, I’ve been putting myself through” parenting school”, and situations like this are my homework. Before, I would have jumped right into all the positive ways to view the situation, but I’ve been reading an AMAZING book called Parenting Without Power Struggles, and it’s about making room for your child’s feelings, which is making a ton of sense to me.
It has to do with the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Far too often, we get the message in our society that not all emotions are acceptable, and we don’t allow room for grief. Or another issue is that our kids get stuck in the angry and bargaining phases, but what they really need is to move past into the depression stage, where they will allow themselves to feel sad instead of mad.
“Our challenge as parents is to interpret for our kids what we sense is contributing to their anger. We need to try to speak on behalf of the fury underneath our children’s words or behaviour….This sometimes means gently guiding children to the Wall of Futility when they’re frustrated, so they can offload their feelings of discouragement or disappointment and move on to adaptation.”
The Wall of Futility means the point at which a child moves past anger, arguing, and bargaining, and moves into hurt and sadness, which is the true cause of all the other emotions.
Susan Stiffelman writes that as long as children stay in the arguing phase, they can’t move into dealing with the sadness, and therefore can’t adapt to difficult, painful, or disappointing experiences.
When we respond to their anger and arguing with logic and reason, we KEEP them in the stage that doesn’t allow them to grieve. And once they hit the stage of grieving, it is healthy and GOOD for them to get it all out in the open, without us trying to cheer them up right away, or even shaming them for their sadness.
If we respond with gentleness and compassion, even when they’re angry and arguing, and try to nudge them along to feeling the sadness and tears, they will get over the hardship sooner.
When they hit the stage of sadness, it’s super important for us as parents to welcome it, and hold space for it – to allow our kids to feel all the sadness, and to let them know that all the feelings are safe with us.
Just a couple of hours before reading that, I made the exact mistake of skipping over the healing tears. One of my kids came in upset, and I thought I was using good parenting when I immediately went into “Let’s look at this from a different perspective” mode.
It did not go well.
When I picked up my book later that evening, I could not believe how accurate this is! I completely missed the opportunity to draw out the hurt and disappointment, and it turned into a long, drawn-out, angry discussion about how my child felt it was NOT POSSIBLE to see things from a different perspective.
If course it wasn’t!! My timing was terrible.
I love how Stiffelman refers to it as “Act I” and “Act II”. Act I is all the outpouring of emotion, and it is most definitely not time for dealing with the problem. The kid should not be quiet, or reasonable, or see the bright side. They should just get it all out.
Once they have emptied out all that emotional angst, had a good cry, calmed down, and finished Act I, THEN it is possibly time for the logical thoughts of Act II – if the parent first asks the child if they’d like to hear a different perspective.
I tried this recently, and was told most decidedly that my child did NOT wish to hear my perspective. Since I’m new at this, I ended up telling her anyway, which went very badly. I reminded myself that I still need some practice! We’ll try again next time.
But all of this makes so much sense to me – I’ve seen it go the wrong way many, many times in the past, and wish I would have left more room for all the strong emotions to get out.
Growing up, I wanted to be a “good girl” so much, I ended up stuffing a lot of things inside. I wanted to be quiet and compliant, and didn’t want to cause any problems. I believed the best way to do that was to hold it all in. The issue with that is when the pressure eventually builds up too much, everything just explodes.
Janet Lansbury says that three year olds are often seen as having issues with emotions, because they cry and scream in the moment, but she said in reality, they are actually incredibly healthy emotionally, because they don’t hold anything in. They let it all out, and move on.
Now of course, a world full of people acting like three year olds would be outrageously terrible, but there are healthy, mature ways to release emotions. What I’m trying to do (with my kids and myself!) is to encourage privacy to be mad, cry, write it out, draw a picture, whatever it takes to get it out. The emotions usually aren’t the problem, it’s the expression of them that is. So the goal is healthy expression and release of the emotions, rather than holding it all in.
Because this goes against what I’ve spent most of my life doing, I have to admit, it’s taking some time to make the switch in my mind and responses. But as I work at it, I feel such a wonderful shift within myself. I feel space opening up inside for my own emotions, and I feel much less frustration over my kids’ emotions.
It’s even helpful just to be able to identify what’s going on in my children – I can silently check off the stages in my head as I watch them unfold before me, and it helps me hang in there with more patience, because I know that as soon as we hit the grief stage, and the tears start, we’re almost there, and things will be okay.
It’s really hard as a parent to watch your child suffer, but it helps to know we can be a safe place for them, and the tears are a sign of healing.