Accepting our children’s emotions sounds simple in theory, but for most parents I know (and me) this is an enormous challenge. The powerful instinct we have to alleviate our children’s discomforts is, obviously, healthy and positive when their feelings reflect a need that we can fill, like offering food when they’re hungry or helping them to bed when they’re tired.
But just as often, children have feelings that we cannot and should not try to fix, because in these instances, the true “need” reflected is for children to safely experience and share the feelings. Their pain is relieved when we can bravely roll out the red carpet to welcome these emotions, even if they seem totally unreasonable and over-the-top as children’s emotions often do.
But if our children are frightened or anxious, isn’t it our job to insist, “Don’t worry, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” assuring our children that they’re safe and easing their minds? We can’t allow them continue to feel afraid, can we?
Yes, children need to know that we are doing our job to keep them safe, but as much as we might wish to, we can’t shelter them from their own imaginations. So as tempting as it might be to overrule and invalidate our child’s fears with common sense reasoning, these feelings need be allowed to exist as other feelings do. Here are some steps for responding productively to our children’s fears:
- Project calmness
We calm ourselves first so we can be receptive and listen from a place of confidence and strength, rather than projecting discomfort or judgment.
We fully accept the feelings, which is sometimes all children need to be able to move through them.
We are open to exploring the fears with genuine curiosity (i.e., “What worries you most?” or “What does the monster look like?”).
We offer reassurance by providing age-appropriate facts. In Your Self Confident Baby, Magda Gerber suggests: “If you can pinpoint what the fear is, talk about it. Explain to him in simple terms what you think he is able to understand. ‘Tigers live at the zoo. There are no tigers at our house. We have a kitty cat, don’t we?’ Accept that your child feels anxious or scared. Offer him alternatives like ‘Would you feel better if your teddy bear sleeps with you, or I put on the night-light or leave the door open?’ Tell him where you’ll be.”
- Consider solutions
We explore solutions but don’t make solving the problem our goal. We proceed patiently and slowly, allowing children to take the lead as much as possible
Catherine shared an experience with her almost 3 year old son:
“I wanted to share a success story with you. I’ve read No Bad Kids three times! With each reading, my expectations of my little guy improve. I am able to see him as a whole person, and I’m also able to see him as the little boundary-testing-explorer who needs a firm anchor and gentle leader in me. I’m still learning and struggling, but I’m definitely less ‘ruffled’ these days. Thank you!
Our latest success: Henry, almost 3, has been a great sleeper for about a year. Out of the blue, he started popping out of his room after we said goodnight. This would go on for hours, with my husband gently guiding him back to bed over, and over, and over! I thought he was ‘playing games’, but my husband was sure that he was genuinely scared. I wondered,” What would Janet say?” A few nights back, as we settled in for bed, I looked him in the eye and asked if he was scared. He said ‘yes’ in a sad little voice. I thought back to when I was little and sensitive and scared. I knew how he felt. I replied, and really truly meant it: “I know you’re scared. I remember being little and feeling scared at night, I really do.” I paused, looked at him with the softest, most understanding eyes, because I could totally relate, I was such a sensitive little kid. I followed up, “It’s okay to be scared. I understand, I really do, but you have to stay in your bed at night.” That’s it. Guess who’s stayed in his bed for the last few nights?! Thank you for sharing your approach. Your guidance and insights have been invaluable.”
Catherine later added:
“As a follow-up to my initial email: At lunch today, I told him that the little cup he was drinking out of was mine when I was little. He replied, “And when you were little, you were scared.” Knowing that Mommy got scared too really left an impression!”
Jessica shared her story and insights:
“I have been sharing your web site and podcast with a lot of friends this week and revisiting some of my favorite posts from the past. I wanted to share a really lovely success we’re having in our family. My son is 3 and a half and for the past six months he’s been having a lot of bedtime fears. At first it was fear that pirates would come into our room. I got a night light, gave him some extra kisses, and explained, “Pirates are on the ocean, they don’t come to houses.” Then it was the scary owl outside the bedroom window. It was clear that we were engaged in a game of “whack-a-mole” where each time we calmed the fear in one place it popped up somewhere else. Finally, I took a step back and I thought about accepting the feelings and how I could take that approach with him. Now when he says he’s afraid as I tuck him in at night, I tell him, “Yeah, you’re feeling afraid. It’s okay to be afraid, that feeling won’t hurt you. Being afraid is a feeling like sadness is a feeling, it will come and go. You’re safe, and it’s okay to be afraid.” I can see him physically relax.
I think when I was trying to “solve” his fear I was sending him the message that fear isn’t okay, and I was creating an anxiety in him that he was afraid of being afraid. Now that I tell him it’s okay, that anxiety is gone. I feel so happy that I can give him this gift from his earliest childhood: You don’t have to be afraid of your feelings.”
In truth, our children’s feelings are gifts – precious windows into their minds and hearts — rather than problems for us to fix. These exchanges are quality time at the highest level. If we can consistently convey to our kids that we can bravely face whatever they might be going through – we aren’t afraid — then they will be able to accept these feelings as well. Our ability to accept all the negatives life offers us will help inform and shape a lifelong sense of security, comfort, and happiness.
Here’s how Dr. Susan David explains this healthy process in her new book Emotional Agility:
“One of the greatest human triumphs is to choose to make room in our hearts for both the joy and the pain, and to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This means seeing feelings not as being “good” or “bad” but as just “being.” Yes, there is this relentless assumption in our culture that we must do something when we have inner turmoil. We must struggle with it, fix it, control it, exert brute force willpower over it, remain positive. What we really need to do, though, is what is most simple and obvious: nothing. That is, to just welcome these experiences, breathe into them, and learn their contours without racing for the exits.”
(A big thank you to Jessica and Catherine for sharing their stories and to Catherine for her lovely photo!)