Don’t worry be happy?
It is a phrase that we have come to love, but how does it fare in the world of parenting? Not so great it turns out. On my most recent trip to the movies I watched Inside Out (aka A Therapist’s Dream!), which beautifully demonstrates the value of all our emotions, not just the pain-free ones. What happens when we try to shun sadness and just be joyful? The short answer is that things start to fall apart for our kids.
A key moment in the film comes when the mom asks the 11-year-old daughter to put on a brave and happy face so that the father can stay positive throughout a difficult time. Of course the mom had the best of intentions in helping with the transition but the underlying communication to the child reads as: “if you express your unhappy emotions you will be hurting your family.” The child then has to carry the weight of her personal difficulties on her own and doesn’t do so well with that. After pushing away her sadness, with damaging results, she finally embraces it and all is healed.
Going toward the pain with our children, instead of avoiding it, can be one of the hardest challenges parents face, and yet is arguably the most important. Many of us were not raised in an environment where there was space for difficult feelings, which makes it hard to create that environment for our kids. It feels much easier to distract them away from their emotions than delving into them. What Inside Out demonstrates beautifully is the value in giving voice to our children’s difficult emotions so they don’t feel alone or think there is something bad or shameful about having them. When we communicate to our children that we can handle their worst feelings it lets them know they are loved for all of themselves, not just the fun, smiley parts.
Here are 3 tips for embracing difficult feelings:
1) To a child that is hitting/kicking you:
Instead of: “If you hit me again you are going in a time out”
Try: “I can’t let you hurt my body but I’m thinking that something has upset you and I want to help you feel better. Perhaps you are mad that we have to leave the park? It makes you want to kick me when you feel mad? If you are having kicking feelings lets go kick the ball around in the yard.”
2) To a child who is crying because they left their teddy at home:
Instead of: “Don’t worry about it, I can’t do anything about it now, look at the bus out the window!”
Try: “That’s your special teddy huh? It feels sad that teddy isn’t here with you? I know. I wonder if a hug from mommy would help.”
3) To a child who is spitting because they are mad:
Instead of: “stop spitting or you are going in a time out”
Try: “Maybe you have some yucky feelings inside that you want to get out? Lets not spit on mommy, lets spit into a tissue instead until you get all those yucky feelings out.”
Annabelle Safinia is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist working with families and parents at Well Baby Center. She is also the Group and Counseling Coordinator and Mindful Parenting Group facilitator/trainer.