By Audrey Woods
Edmond Family Counseling
We have this instinct when in the presence of a crying baby or whiney child - to stop the crying and whining, to do anything and everything to make it stop. Often, this takes the form of parents gently (and sometimes not so gently) saying something like, “You’re OK, you’re OK.” We want to help the frail, naive creature in front of us understand there really is nothing to cry about! It was only a sound or it doesn’t really matter what color the marker is or you get so much stuff already it shouldn’t bother you not to get the shoes right now. Babies' and children’s concerns seem so trivial, might I even say ridiculous, when compared to what’s coming. Bills, jobs, and important decisions are the real stressors of life; just you wait!
This instinct, the “You’re ok” one, is a well-intentioned fumble. It essentially discounts the feelings of the child because we want that small creature gets. it. together. now. While I am a firm believer that children overreact (my toddler bawled for 20 minutes this morning because I didn’t have 27 arms to hold her and do all the things), I’m also a firm believer that we adults are in a prime position to teach our children how to handle those big emotions. Here’s what I wish I had said to her this morning: “You’re sad mommy can’t hold you right now, I know baby, that stinks! It’s ok to be sad. Maybe a hug from Bunny (her stuffy) would help.” I didn’t say that… I ignored her crying as I ran around the house frazzled trying to get out of the door. Even though I didn’t give her the most therapeutic response, I called it a win because I didn’t lose my you-know-what and yell or tell her to stop crying. Small victories!
This instinct follows us right into our adolescent’s life and even becomes stronger as we expect our middle schoolers to just get it by now! Toddlers might be known for their meltdowns, but boy those middle schoolers have perfected the art of drama. Pre-teen: “Everyone hates me!” Parent: “Honey, that’s not true. You’re blowing things out of proportion.” Pre-teen: “You don’t even know how hard it is now!” Parent: “What’s going on with you?” Pre-teen: “I HATE MY LIFE;” slams door, and scene!
In order to effectively teach our children how to manage big emotions, we have to squash the “You’re OK” instinct. It’s unhelpful. Rather, we have to focus on sending this message as frequently as possible: your feelings are ok, sometimes your behavior is not. With toddlers, it looks like my woulda-coulda-shoula scenario this morning. Simply name their feelings, tell them it’s ok to feel like that and coach them through what might help. Sometimes, nothing will help except your comfort as a parent. Know that even when it’s just you saying “this stinks” in a relatively calm, empathetic manner, you are literally showing them how to handle frustrations. Don’t we all just have to say “UGH!” on occasion and push through an annoying task? That’s exactly what you’re showing them how to do.
With older kids, not much changes. You are helping them name their feelings and being perhaps a bit more specific on what they’re experiencing. “You feel like you don’t have any friends right now; you were really hurt by that; you just want a friend you can really trust.” Your instinct will be to make them ok by suggesting ways they can solve the current predicament or tell them they are ok because said predicament is not that bad. Neither are helpful. When you just focus on making sure your child knows you are listening and understand what they are telling or showing you, good things happen. Their brains literally begin to calm down (a physiological response to empathy being the calming of the Vagus Nerve) so they can begin to work through their own problem. It may take them longer than you might like, 20 minutes of venting/crying/whining feels like an eternity, but I promise you that 20 minutes now will pay dividends in 5, 10, 15 years when your adult child is a functional human being with healthy relationships.
Teaching kids how to manage big emotions is critical. Don’t you know people who never learned to handle their big emotions? They end up getting divorced, losing jobs, and are generally unhappy individuals because emotion regulation affects every, literally every, aspect of life. Emotions are with us every moment of every day whether we acknowledge them or not. So instead of focusing on teaching your child academic knowledge, read about how to teach them what to do with anger. You can start with young ones by following Big Little Feelings online, reading about positive parenting by authors like Dan Siegel and Laura Markham. If things are feeling overwhelming and your kid can’t seem to handle the day-to-day stressors of life effectively, counseling can be a space to begin learning about what to do with big emotions. But I warn you, at least in my office, you as the parent are an integral part of that process, attending parts of every session and really looking at what you can do at home to help challenge the “You’re OK” instinct.
You can start counseling services at Edmond Family Counseling by calling 405-341-3554 and learning about our intake process. Audrey Woods is a Staff Therapist, M.A., NCC, at Edmond Family Counseling.