My sister-in-law received a text from a friend while we were talking on the phone the other day. Her friend is getting a divorce, and he was with his ten-year-old daughter who was crying because she missed her mother. Dad was desperate to console his daughter and nothing he was doing was working. My sister-in-law asked what he could do. My reply was for him to do nothing other than to acknowledge how his daughter felt and to allow her the space to fully express herself and to fully feel. He did not need to fix anything or happy her up or do anything at all. He needed to let his daughter be with her feelings and allow her to share them with him.
It is difficult to watch our children feel sad. It is painful to see them hurt. We ache when they feel left out. Having children can feel like your heart wondering around outside your body. At those times of intense emotion, it may feel like we need to do something. We may then try to handle a situation for a child (“Oh, don’t you worry about a thing! I’ll have a talk with Susie’s mom and you’ll be invited to her birthday party. I’m sure it was just a mistake.”), minimize the feeling (“Oh, you have lots of time for boyfriends. You won’t miss him after a few weeks.”) or employ any number of other approaches most of which stop the expression of feeling.
A more fulfilling job in those moments is to guide your children through their feelings. Sometimes that just means being there and listening. It means acknowledging what she feels (“You seem really sad” or “You look like you feel really hurt”). It means truly listening to what she says. It means asking him how he wants it to play out, what he would like to see happen or how you can support him.
Most of us did not grow up with this option or in an atmosphere encouraging emotional expression. A friend told me the other day that all of the children in her family were constantly vying for parental attention to the point that she never was able to simply ‘be’. It is only in adulthood that many of us learn to ‘be’. And that is liberating.
A terrific resource for learning to be is the Freedom to Be: A Life Embracing Course in which we explore these concepts and how to apply them in your life. To be present for your child who is feeling intense emotions, you can practice empathy. Empathy will allow you to deeply understand the feelings of your child without having to ‘fix’ anything. Empathy will allow you to see things from your child’s perspective. You can also broaden your self-acceptance, thus allowing your child to be more self-accepting. One key is to explore how you handle mistakes. What have your children decided about making mistakes from watching you? Without the fear of making a mistake, your children will take healthy risks, speak up in class and boldly try something new. So will you! When you are more self-accepting, particularly with your mistakes, your children will be, too.
Another place of discovery is in looking at how often we make responsibility a ‘have to’ or burden. You can shift the ‘have to’ into a joy. A simple practice is to notice whenever you say, “I have to [cook dinner, wash the clothes, drive my daughter to music lessons]” and change your words to “I get to [cook dinner, wash the clothes, drive my daughter to music lessons]”. In cooking dinner for your family, you get to nourish them. In doing the laundry, you get to care and provide for your family. In driving your daughter to music lessons, you get to enhance her life and get to share in the experience. These core concepts of Freedom to Be deeply enhance relationships, especially those within your family.
From a place of empathy, self-acceptance and joyful responsibility, you can let your children be with their emotions. Your children will know that they are so very capable of handling their feelings and that you are there to support and guide them.