Children learn to work out their feelings by observing the adults in their lives
It All Started with an insignificant event
“Just stop,” I said to my seven-year-old daughter as we pulled out of the school’s parking lot. “We’ve talked about it. It’s over. You need to move on.”
“But — ”
“Enough,” I said, raising my voice another notch. “It’s not even that big of a deal. I don’t understand why you’re so worked up about it.”
She balled up her fists and I imagined I could hear the steam escaping her ears. In the rear-view mirror, I could see she was full to burst — cheeks filled with red; eyes filled with tears. “You’re not even listening to me!” she spat, at the top of her lungs. “You won’t even let me talk!”
Deep breath. Patronizing voice. “Honey, I did let you— ” Crap. I stopped myself. No, I hadn’t, actually. When she’d gotten in the car and immediately started in on her daily lament, I’d offered a statement to the contrary and shut the conversation down.
She was anxious about researching an animal for science class.
“You’ve got plenty of time,” I said.
She was frustrated about math homework.
“You’re great at math,” I said.
She was having friction with a friend.
“You two will work it out,” I said.
I thought I was being supportive. Giving her a positive perspective would shift her mindset, and the anxiety, frustration, and friction would go away, right?
Wrong. My daughter is nothing if not persistent. And these problems weren’t going to go away just because I polished them up, all nice and pretty.
The truth is, I didn’t want to deal with her feelings. I wanted to move on. I had already decided, before she ever opened her mouth, that whatever had her worked up was insignificant. And it was, to me. But to her, it was very significant indeed.
Another deep breath, this time out of exasperation with myself. “You’re right,” I said, softening my tone. “I’m sorry. We’ll be home in a couple minutes. Do you want to sit with me and talk about it?”
She nodded vigorously, tears of relief rather than rage sliding down her windburned cheeks. “Yes, Mama. Yes, please.” She took her own ragged breath and relaxed back into the seat.
When we got home, my seven-year-old sat on my lap, while my five-year-old silently leaned against us. I asked what happened, and how she felt about what happened. I paraphrased what I thought I was hearing, and asked for clarification. I asked how I could help her through the situation, and what strategies she could use on her own. I asked what she needed — from me; from Dad and sis; from teachers and support providers at school.
At the end of the conversation, she hugged me tightly. “Mom, you’re the best. Thank you so much.”
And I wiped a tear from my cheek as I held her even tighter, thinking about what an asshole I am.
All she wanted was to be heard. She wanted me to ask questions, to learn what she was thinking and how she was feeling, and to really take the time to understand why this thing, which seemed so insignificant to me, was taking up so much of her emotional energy.
And I cut her off. Shut her down. Made it clear that my comfort was more important than her feelings. What kind of mother was I, anyway?
The Pattern Seemed All Too Familiar
When I was a kid, I felt misunderstood and not listened to. I had no idea what to do with my feelings, because no one seemed to have the time for them. While I don’t think I ever got as heated as my daughter did in the back seat of the car that day (because I would rather eat my emotions than get smacked) I do have very clear memories of balling up my fists, weeping silently, screaming into my pillow, and crying to my dogs because I couldn’t seem to get the humans to understand me.
Some big, bad things happened when I was a kid — things that were scary, and dangerous, and affected my physical and mental health for a long time afterward — and I never once opened my mouth to tell my parents.
Not telling wasn’t a conscious act. I didn’t, the day after I was sexually abused, decide I wouldn’t tell my parents. Rather, I realized I couldn’t. Hundreds of little micro-incidents over the years had conditioned to me to swallow my feelings and needs, or risk being berated, dismissed, or thumped upside the head.
I received their message, intentional or not, loud and clear: I really should just leave them alone with all my nonsense kid problems.
The thing is, kids grow up to be adults. And if kids’ needs aren’t met, they often grow up to be dysfunctional adults. If you don’t believe me, just ask me.
Children live almost entirely in their feelings. They can’t rationalize away their pain, or fear, or anger, no matter how many times grownups tell them it’s irrational. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that’s responsible for judgment, prioritization, and decision making, doesn’t even fully develop until approximately age twenty-five .
So expecting my second-grader to understand that whatever has her on high alert is no big deal is akin to teaching calculus to a houseplant: She’s not going to buy it, no matter how hard I sell it.
My seven-year-old is a little kid with big feelings: happiness is perceived as elation; unease morphs into despair; nervousness and anxiety become near-crippling fear. And, I’ll admit it, these extreme emotions are most definitely not my jam.
Just because I’ve been conditioned to label negative emotions as an inconvenience, though, doesn’t mean that my child doesn’t get a chance to feel them, talk about them, and work through them.
Reflecting on my own experience makes me realize that I must make time for my daughter’s feelings, even if they seem irrational or make me uncomfortable. Probably especially then, because that’s when she needs the most help sorting through them. And, probably, I do, too.
Children learn what they live
Yesterday morning, my kids were having an argument at the breakfast table while I was in my bedroom, getting dressed.
“You didn’t let me sit next to you on the bus,” said Little Sis.
“Mary wanted me to sit next to her,” said Big.
I had to chime in, because I’m told that siblings are supposed to take care of each other. “Girls, both of you should be looking out for each other on the bus,” I called down the hall.
Big sis burst out in tears. “I just — I feel like I’m a bad sister!”
Little: “You’re not a bad sister! I just want someone to sit with on the bus.”
“But I feel like if I don’t sit next to Mary, she won’t want to be my friend anymore.”
“She’s still going to be your friend if you sit with me. We can sit next to different people every day.”
“But that’s what happened with Natalie in first grade.” My seven-year-old lowered her voice, and her tears were less urgent, more reflective. She was genuinely afraid to lose a friendship, and torn by the feeling that she needed to decide between her sister and her friend.
“Well, just because it happened with Natalie doesn’t mean it will happen with Mary,” said her little sister softly.
Both kids had de-escalated, and I lost track of the conversation at that point, but I returned to the kitchen a few moments later to find my two beautiful children in the midst of a warm embrace. They patted each other’s hair, and each told the other what a good sister she was. “I love you,” they said.
And I definitely was not crying. No, not at all.
On my best days, I cannot express my feelings the way my five- and seven-year-old children did just then.
I lacked a healthy emotional model to follow when I was a child, and never really developed one until after I was married. But somehow, somewhere, my two little tiny humans learned that it was okay to acknowledge, explore, and discuss their feelings — not just with the grownups they trust, but with each other.
Still not crying.
And my kids never fought again, and now we are all experts at expressing our feelings and listening to each other. The End.
Ha ha, just kidding.
My kids still fight. I still find myself trying to wriggle out of talking about uncomfortable feelings. I still get impatient with my children. Sometimes, my first reflex is still to minimize their pain, the way that mine was minimized when I was a child.
Every day, though, I work to recognize this impulse and curb it. The last thing I want is for my children to grow up thinking that, if something big and bad happens in their lives, they shouldn’t bother me with it.
Thankfully, I was blessed with two persistent children: two strong little girls who speak up for themselves when they don’t feel heard; two budding young women who know that their feelings and experiences, even the icky ones, are important; kids who know our family can work through anything together, and that we’ve got each other’s back.
And if that’s the only thing they ever learn from me, I think I could live with that.
This story was originally published on Medium.com.