It happened early one morning this past summer. In the rush of tying shoes, applying sunscreen and shoving bit of bagels in mouths, my older son said, "I don't want to go to camp." I brushed it off, figuring this was a typical delay tactic... "What do you mean? Camp is fun!" Zip lunch bags, apply more sunscreen. He sadly replied, "The other kids were yelling at me when I was playing goalie and they were being mean to me." What!? My chest tightened and my heart started to pound at the mere thought of someone being unkind to my boy.
I'm not naïve about the way that children can treat one another, and I have no doubt that my son will be on the receiving end of teasing at some point in his life, but I certainly wasn't prepared to address it when we needed to be out the door five minutes ago. Hearing my sensitive 6-year-old say he never wanted to play hockey again both crushed and infuriated me and I felt the growl of a Mama Bear rise up inside. While I was tempted to pin it on the other children ("Those kids were just being mean!") and discount his feelings ("Oh, forget about it, you're fine!") in an attempt to scoot him out the door, I knew that my reaction and empathy in this moment could make or break the way he felt about returning to camp. I put the sunscreen down and hoisted him up onto the kitchen counter. The clock would wait because we needed to have a talk. My boy opened the emotional door... I needed to walk through it and greet him on the other side.
It is in these moments when our children show cracks of confidence and true vulnerability that the real test of parenthood occurs. Once we've mastered potty training, sleep issues and teaching our children to share, we're now left to face the next phase of parenting young children -- the phase that entails weighty issues like helping them to build independence, character and resilience. When our kids reveal their emotions to us, they are asking for validation and help. They look to us to provide the guidance and emotional scaffolding that only a parent's love can build. Our response is crucial.
When a child is expressing significant feelings, it's important to remember that if we tell him not to worry, cry or be upset, we risk invalidating his experience. He can end up receiving the message: "What I was feeling in that moment must have been wrong. It's not OK to feel that way." Rather than feeling a strong connection and receiving support from a parent who will help him develop coping skills, the child begins to learn that his parent will not accept his feelings and will not be a safe place for his feelings to land in a time of need.
When your child expresses serious feelings of doubt, fear, sadness, worry or cracks in confidence, you can have so many wonderful and supportive replies:
- "That must have been scary!"
- "I bet it upset you when he called you that mean name."
- "You're sad because they won't let you play with them."
- "You were trying very hard and it still didn't work."
- "It's no fun when things don't turn out how you wanted them to."
- "You must have been worried, but you are safe now."
- "Would you like to talk more about it? I'm a good listener."
How much more comforting are these responses than "You're fine. Don't worry. Get over it." No one would appreciate being dismissed like that when revealing a strong emotion or entrusting feelings in someone else -- including your child.
Any iteration or combination of the statements above are very validating for a child. They label the emotion and tell the child "I'm here to accept your feelings and work with you to get through them." You are also developing a deep connection with your child by showing him that you will provide the time and space to process his big emotions together... and that he is not alone in figuring them all out.
My response to my son after he revealed his trouble at camp? "That must have been very upsetting for you. I think I would feel the same way. Tell me more about what happened." And we got through it. He offloaded his anxiety and worry and once I sent the message that his feelings were OK, my son's whole demeanor and attitude about going to camp changed. He learned that he can say "Hey guys! I'm still learning, you don't have to yell at me!" and that it's OK if he asks to play a different position. Most importantly, he learned that he can open up to me and trust me with emotions when things get tough.
The way we respond now while our children are still young and want to talk to us will make a difference in whether or not they choose to confide in us later in life. What was teasing during a hockey game could later become cheating on a test, having a broken heart, or facing peer pressure to drink or do drugs. Right now, in these early years, we are building a steady foundation of acceptance, communication and connectedness by coaching our children through their feelings and sending the message that "I am here for you, through the good and the bad." We want for our children to talk to us long after we can prop them up on the counter or fit them on our lap. This is how it begins.
When your gut tells you that there is something more that your child is experiencing, when you wade through the inevitable whining and stalling and land in real, big feelings, remember to Stop. Listen. Validate. Rather than dismiss or sweep your child's emotions under the rug, walk through the door that he has opened and sit with him for a while -- it will make a significant and ever-lasting impact on your relationship.