Being in touch and able to lean in to emotion is a hallmark trait of emotional wellbeing, resilience and healthy relationships. Basically, all the good things we want for our kids. Yet, so many children are not allowed to feel negative emotions. ‘Don’t cry’, ‘don’t be sad’, ‘why are you upset over that?’, ‘calm down or we are going home’, ‘don’t get angry at your sister’, ‘if you cry over tv, I’m turning it off!’ When children get the message that they are not allowed to feel something, or when they attach shame or distress to those feelings, those emotions get suppressed. These emotions don’t go away, and living in the subconscious, they have the potential to lead to a whole range of emotional disruption.
In our family, all feelings are welcome. Emotions like sad and angry can be shocking in their raw state. Children often use their whole bodies and the full spectrum of their vocal range to process their feelings. When you have been conditioned to suppress these emotions, it can be triggering. When you are in public, it can feel particularly uncomfortable.
I have seen my children surprise themselves. As they spiral down the vortex of emotion, succumbing to anger and disappointment, they end up in a place they don’t want to be. No one likes to feel out of control. But I believe that this is part of the process that all children need to go through. They need to feel to the edges of their emotions. They need to decide for themselves that they don’t want to go to that place. This is often the incentive they need to learn tools to regulate and process how they are feeling.
When your children are feeling strong emotions, every parent feels the pull to make it better. As parents we need to fight that urge and have a long-term view. Supporting, rather than taking over, as our children navigate their emotions will help them grow into people who are in touch with their feelings and are able to process them in a healthy way. Here are some things you can do to support your child.
I love this quote from Lynn Hauka. ‘When you hold space for someone, you bring your entire presence to them. You walk along with them without judgment, sharing their journey to an unknown destination. Yet you’re completely willing to end up wherever they need to go. You give your heart, let go of control, and offer unconditional support. And when you do, both of you heal, grow, and transform.’
Holding space for your child while they process big emotions doesn’t require much talking, other than letting them know that you are there for them. Your main aim is to be a calm presence and to create a safe space for your child to express and release their emotions. Allowing yourself to just be present and nothing more in this space takes practise and feels unnatural at first. But you are showing your child that you can be trusted with their big feelings.
‘We listen not just to hear but to understand.’ Children sometimes struggle to express exactly what it is that has upset them. We need to listen deeply and patiently while we wait for their message. This afternoon, my daughter was on her way to the park with her grandparents and her brother. Less than a house away, she quickly descended into extreme distress. She choked out words like ‘my socks are wrong’ as she threw her shoes around the room. She wanted to go to the park. She didn’t want to go to the park. She wanted me close. She wanted me gone.
Patiently I waited. Taking a step forward, a couple of steps back as requested. As I listened, it became clear, that she didn’t realise that I wouldn’t be coming to the park and she wanted me to come too. I spoke, to let her know I understood. ‘You would like me to come to the park too?’ The emotion released from her body and she started to take steps towards calm.
Gently maintain your boundaries
In our family, everyone has the right to feel safe. This includes both our bodies and our possessions. It is not unusual for children to use aggression when they feel they are not being heard or when they lack the skills to communicate how they are feeling in a positive way. It is important to gently communicate that you won’t let them hurt you or break your things. ‘I can see you are really frustrated, but I won’t let you hurt me.’ And then gently deflect any wayward limbs. I think it is important to follow up in a moment of calm later on, that ‘it is ok to feel angry, but hurting when you are angry makes me feel unsafe.’ If your boundaries are crossed, and from time to time they will be, it is also important to give yourself space to process your own emotions. Lead by example.
Have Unconditional Positive Regard
Hold your child with unconditional positive regard. ‘This practice rests on the knowledge that no matter what the person has done or who the person is, the listener holds them with deep respect, compassion, and positive regard.’ This means that if your child hurts you when they are angry or sad, or if they say hurtful things, while maintaining your boundaries, your child can see that you do not think of them as a bad person or incapable of processing their emotions.
Breathe through your judgment
It is easy to feel frustration and to lack empathy when the cause of your child’s distress is unrelatable. But leave judgment at the door, this is big for them.
Accept that they may make different decisions and choose to experience their emotions differently to you
When you hold space for your child, and you watch them navigate their emotions, knowing that the only way to come out the other side is to feel it, accept that what feels right for your child in that moment may be different to you. My six year old is very vocal when he is angry, hurt or upset. Screaming seems to release the frustration for him. In the beginning, I found it really uncomfortable, but I have come to accept that for him at this time, letting his emotion out in that way is part of his process.
Don’t try to fix it
It is hard to watch your child struggle with emotions and feel pain, but your presence provides support. Allowing your child the space they need to come up with their own solutions, or to ride the wave of their emotions to acceptance on their own is a transformative experience, albeit a slow one.
What do I mean by that? Well, emotional growth is a lifelong endeavour. I’m in my thirties and I still have to make conscious time to process my own feelings and reflect on where I could have handled things better. I still find it hard sometimes to handle my emotions in a healthy way. I know what I need to do and how I want to parent, but I hope I don’t give the impression that I always get it right. I’m proud of how I held space for my daughter this afternoon, but hours earlier, as I watched my six year old rage, I found myself hijacking his emotional pain and making it my own. ‘That hurt! I don’t ever hurt you when I am angry!’ Truth, but there is a lot of judgment, and shame rolled into that statement and it was incredibly unhelpful.
What I do know, is that the more conscious I am of my own reactions, the more natural it becomes. Being aware means that more often than not you find yourself approaching your child’s big feelings how you want to. I am going to end on a little anecdote that filled me with pride. Yesterday, we went to visit a friend and played with a few unschooling families for the afternoon. Late in the day, just before we were about to leave, the games of wrestling and ball throwing on the trampoline took a sinister turn. Smiling faces were showing tell-tale signs of frustration. One of my son’s friends seemed particularly angry, no doubt caused by something that I didn’t see. He started throwing balls at my son in anger. My son sat there, confident in his role, holding space for his friend. ‘I can see you are angry. You’re hurting me, but I’m not going to hurt you back.’ Every now and again he would repeat it, until his friend found his calm.
The parents stood around and watched this play out. All of the children handled it so well and it made me feel immense pride. Fifteen minutes later it was time to leave. We got in the car and my daughter threw something at her brother. He leaned over and hit her on the knee. Did I mention it was a journey?