It seems that every time I hear useful advice about how to influence children, it always comes back to the same thing: Whatever it is you want your kids to do, do it yourself.
(This applies to relationships with anyone, by the way. Give what you want to get. Be the change you want to see. You first.)
So it’s no surprise that it applies to raising kids who aren’t afraid of feeling. Children aren’t born afraid of emotion—they learn to be afraid. When you are less afraid of your own feelings and you’re less afraid of your children’s feelings, they are less afraid of emotion.
When they are less afraid of emotion, they live easier, grounded, more peaceful and joyful lives. They have that solid and secure home base within themselves that is so refreshing to see. They are unflappable, not so taken down by the surface stuff of life.
Raising a child to be that way is simple. Not always easy, but amazingly simple: Do not fear your own inner experiences.
Remember that emotion comes and goes and that experiencing a wide range of feelings is part of being human. Welcome the whole gamut of emotion yourself and you’ll be more comfortable witnessing the whole gamut of emotion in others.
How It Looks When We’re Afraid
When a baby cries, the adults in the room tend to rush like crazy people trying to quiet the baby. Of course this is mostly out of very good intentions to help the baby feel better. But often, it’s also a reflection of the adults’ own discomfort with raw emotion.
It’s uncomfortable for us to hear them cry. We assume they are suffering when they cry because we are often suffering when we cry.
We do the same with toddlers. Most adults will do pretty much anything to get a crabby toddler either out of their vicinity (so that they don’t have to face the emotion), or to get the toddler back to some peaceful status quo. Again, I’m not saying this isn’t largely out of purely benevolent desires for our kids to be happy and enjoy life. But it’s not only that. Our own discomfort with the unhappy range of emotions plays a large role in our stifling behavior.
To the typical adult, unhappy emotions are viewed as “problems” and so there is a lot of active wracking of brains to find a “solution”. Are they problems to the child? Not really.
Most times, the child isn’t in nearly as much pain as the adult who is projecting all their stuff onto the unhappy child.
What I Try to Do with My Kids
Although I often fail miserably, my aim is always to show my kids that feeling a wide range of emotions is part of being human. Emotions are nothing to make a big deal of because they are harmless and always changing.
Willow (3 ½) is naturally very good at expressing her anger. When she says, “I’m mad!” I often say something like, “Yeah, I feel mad sometimes too” and leave it at that. That usually seems to slow down her thinking and she relaxes into feeling mad instead of fighting it.
I try to not ask her why she’s mad because she’s likely to point to something outside of herself like, “Miller took my toy” or “I don’t want to take a nap”, and I don’t want to reinforce the lie that things outside of her create her emotion. The less I have her linking her emotions with things outside of herself, the better.
Usually though, she launches into the outside-in explanation of why she believes she’s mad without being asked. Once she even said “I don’t like being mad, how can I be happy again?” and I had the opening to say “There’s nothing to do, just wait and you’ll return to happy”.
The more I can share with her that I feel the same emotions she does at times, and the less I jump in to help her feel better (as if there is something to quickly avoid in negative emotions), the more at ease she seems. Unlike most of us adults, she is incredibly receptive to doing things the easy way.
With Miller (19 mo.), I’m less verbal but I still try to show him that it’s okay to feel emotion in a similar way. I don’t rush into his room to grab him from his crib at the slightest cry. I don’t let him cry it out alone, but I don’t break down the door to save him from feeling bad either. There is a balance there I try to reach for.
When he’s upset, I try to just hold him close to me without much verbal fanfare. I want him to feel safe but I don’t want to shower him with “Poor baby, what’s the matter?” My goal is to be a soft place for him to land but at the same time to show him that he doesn’t need protection or immediate comfort. He has those within him. When left alone, he bounces back to well-being. Every single time.
It goes without saying (but I feel compelled to say it), I do not always practice what I’m preaching. I often find myself asking both of them to tell me what’s wrong before I even catch myself asking. I often ask them to please stop crying for my own selfish reasons, because I simply want peace and quiet or because I fall into the trap of believing their lives will be better that way.
But I try. And again, it really all goes back to remembering these truths for myself, far above and beyond anything I explicitly say to them. The more I am not afraid of my own emotions…the more they see me feel a variety of feelings without trying to numb them away and without jumping into action to fix them…the better I’m teaching them.