Helping Children To Face Sadness
When our children hurt, we hurt. No one wants to see their child facing sadness. Parents are often moved to fix their child’s unpleasant emotions immediately by almost any means necessary.
We are much more comfortable when our children are happy, and so we try our best to keep them that way.
However, when we move them along out of their sadness too quickly, we actually can do more harm than good according to author and parent educator, Bridgett Miller.
Miller explains that, as creatures of emotion, our greatest learning takes place when we’re able to feel the sadness in what isn’t working for us. Techniques that prevent children from accessing their vulnerability and sadness don’t serve the child in the way we hope they will. She says, “As parents who love our children with all our hearts, it’s understandable that we become distressed when we see them experiencing any sadness or upset. It also makes sense that we’d want to do whatever we can to keep them happy, but sometimes we do so at the expense of their emotional development.”
It’s normal for children (and adults!) to get emotionally stirred up when something doesn’t go their way. Bridgett tells me that our emotional systems are actually built to help us notice when things aren’t working for us. As adults, we have had plenty of life experiences and disappointments. We know that we don’t always get what we want and that sometimes we have no control to change what is. That’s often really hard for adults, but for children, it seems almost unbearable, and that is why they need us to help them process their feelings.
Bridgett says, “Anytime humans bump up against a limit, lack, or restriction, we are flooded by the powerful root emotion called frustration. This is no accident - it’s part of nature’s plan to help us learn and grow. We have to feel the frustration and sadness of what’s not working if we are to move through it rather than getting stuck in it. As parents, we must focus on allowing children to feel what they are feeling so they can begin to develop a relationship with their emotions and come to know themselves as creatures moved by emotion. Every time parents change the circumstances in order to keep the peace or spare the child from their emotional discomfort, we rob them of the opportunity to be changed by that which they cannot change.”
Changing the circumstances to suit the child may make them appear happier. It can certainly stop the tears and sadness quicker, and that makes it easier on us. But it often comes at the expense of developing a healthy emotional system. Miller explains that adapting to what cannot be changed is an emotional process that requires them to feel the sadness in what can’t or won’t work. Feeling the vulnerability of deep sadness is essential to doing that. It’s our job to gently hold the boundaries in place and make room for their upset and tears, not to change the situation to suit them. When children have caring adults who can hold boundaries and space for big emotions, they not only learn to move through their frustration and are ultimately better for the experience in the long-term. She goes on to say, “Over time, the little things that don’t go their way as children build inside of them the resilience they’ll need one day when they are faced with the inevitable adversity and loss that will come their way as they venture into the world as adults.”
Holding space for tears and upset is something that isn’t easy to do for any child, but unfortunately, it still seems particularly taboo for boys. As a mother raising two sons, the topic of raising emotionally healthy boys has always been of interest to me, so while we were on the subject of sadness, I wanted to get Miller’s take on boys’ emotional health and their need to safely shed tears. She says, “When we consider that boys and girls have the very same emotional systems, it’s mind-boggling to think they would need to be treated differently. Being able to feel their sadness is what moves young children to have their tears. Tears are meant to signal to us they’re upset and in need of our comfort. By the time a child cries tears of sadness, loss, or disappointment, they have already experienced the emotional hurt of things not going their way. When they burst into tears upon hearing they may not have another cookie, it’s an indication they’ve felt the pang of futility associated with not getting what they so desperately want. Their tears are an external sign of their brain’s acceptance of this very sad fact and shows that they have entered the emotional process of adapting to circumstances they can’t change or control.”
We interrupt nature’s brilliant process of brain adaption any time we shame, ignore, or punish a child for crying. A young child who is repeatedly dismissed or treated harshly for expressing vulnerability will begin to suppress their feelings and try to stop those tears from coming. This does not take away the emotional hurt. Instead of processing it through tears of sadness, it may be expressed as aggression because a young child cannot release their frustration in a soft and vulnerable way.
This is why it is important to let the natural process play out and allow both boys and girls to have their tears while we lovingly hold space for them to do so. We needn’t worry about boys looking weak for expressing what are very natural emotions to all humans. Miller says, “Boys, who from a young age are encouraged to share their tears and emotions will naturally grow into men who feel their vulnerability and express themselves in socially acceptable ways. Nature wires their mature brains in such a way that they have self-control and do not need to physically act out on their frustration or burst into tears whenever they feel moved by powerful emotions. This is because they’re able to feel their emotions. Rather than suppressing or acting out on them, they learn to process them and find healthy ways to express themselves. Knowing this, there’s no reason for us to fear the tears of our boys or cling to the misguided belief that tears are unmanly.”
To summarize, our children don’t need us to rescue them from sadness or other unpleasant emotions. Doing so, in fact, interrupts the natural process of brain adaptation that helps children build resilience. All emotions are part of the beautiful human experience and are necessary for growth. Rather, children simply need a safe space to feel their feelings. They need to be allowed to work through them without being shamed or shushed. The real work here is often in ourselves. We experience discomfort when our children are faced with sadness, and so we feel moved to “fix” it as quickly as possible. If we, too, can learn to feel our own discomfort and to sit with that emotion ourselves without trying to push it away, we can grow in resilience right alongside our children.