This is a post by Jeri Kayser, a Child Life Specialist at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.
Yep, you read that right. How do we teach our kids to be sad when every natural inclination tells us that kids need to always be happy? As parents, we tend to measure our self-worth in the reflection of our child’s emotions. As soon as our child cries, we seek a solution to sooth in a sympathetic response. But sympathy can sabotage self-esteem. No one wants others to feel sorry for them.
Empathy is more powerful. When you’re empathetic, you let your children know that you understand their distress and are prepared to support them as they develop their coping skills. This is much easier said than done. It’s painful to see your child in pain. Plus, learning to cope with sadness is a skill set that needs to be learned, so how can we help teach our kids how to be sad?
First Step: Embrace your own sadness. Kids learn by example. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, fatigued, frustrated, or generally not pleased with the status quo, do some self-exploration. There is much to be gained from trying to figure out why you aren’t happy. Seeking solutions is a way to gain control and find balance and when your children observe you work through something, they learn the value of the effort. Plus, they’re comforted by the fact that you have some of the same emotions as they do and have learned to deal with them.
Second Step: Remember everybody gets to own their emotion and every emotion is valid. We can go through the same event and have different responses to it, each equally relevant. There’s no “bad” emotion, just the one that’s present. If you can retain a calm presence, it’s easier to be supportive and not have your emotional response get mixed up with your child’s.
Third Step: Help give your child the vocabulary to express their emotion. Teach your child descriptive words that more accurately express their feelings. As they’re learning these words, encourage them to use art as well to express what they’re feeling.
Fourth Step: Help your child discover coping skills that work for them. One of my kids likes to write down her feelings in the privacy of her room (after the door has been slammed!). We know now to wait for the essay to be finished before she is ready to talk.
Last and most important step: Cut yourself and your child some slack. Being emotional is being human. Emotions are how we embrace life and experience it fully. It is not neat or perfect but real and messy and rich.