Why you need to stop “making it better” & how to do it

If you haven’t seen the brilliant YouTube sketch “It’s Not About the Nail,” I recommend you go and view it right now. Click here.

Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

The urge to fix and make better is one of the most universal human traits. It’s natural to want to take the burden away from someone as fast as possible. Whether it’s a friend, a lover, a parent, or a child, we want nothing more than to make life easier and restore that beautiful smile of theirs (and, ok, maybe we also want to share that we know exactly what they are going through because  we’ve been there too and here’s what we did to solve it and if you just do this thing I promise you everything will be so much better! See? I’m a hero!)

The temptation is all the more intense when it is a brokenhearted or hurting child. Parents want to restore peace in our child’s world because we know that children can find it tough to deal with strong (and negative) emotions – especially when they’re ones they have never dealt with before and so don’t know how to cope.

Unfortunately, when we try to fix everything for our child, they don’t learn how to work through their problems on their own. Trouble is, this actually prevents them from developing the skills they need to handle tough situations in the future. Feeling competent and capable in the face of adversity is one of the most important markers of a healthy and hardy self-esteem.

Letting a child feel their feelings and giving them time to work through them at their pace serves two very important purposes:

1. Feeling one’s feelings is a critical part of emotional regulation. 
Children learn to identify new emotions, put labels on confusing sensations, and develop a narrative that helps them overcome what’s upsetting them. It allows the child to make sense of their world. Developing self-regulation skills actually makes children less vulnerable to stress in the long run. [source link]. So, while it is hard for you to watch them suffer right now, you are actually relieving some of the suffering from their future.

2. Giving them space to experience their emotions is validating.
It lets them know that what they are feeling is okay and that there is nothing wrong with them. Trying to “distract” or help a child “snap out” of a funk actually sends the message that it is not okay to feel something. This can lead to unhealthy coping strategies to numb their pain such as:

  • drinking
  • drugs
  • self-harm
  • over-eating
  • under-eating
  • dissociating from themselves completely

These children start to see their very natural human existence as something to be fought and controlled, and they actually end up feeling very out of control and attacked by the world. Other times, the child learns that when you try to shift their emotions from negative to positive, it must mean some emotions are “good” and some are “bad”. They think the “bad” emotions are not acceptable in the household, and, by extension, when they feel these emotions they are not good or acceptable to you. Children and teens are still learning ways to express emotions, so any emotion they feel that is “rejected” by the parent can be a sign that they themselves are rejected by the parent.

The good news is that a child who is allowed to feel upset and process their negative experience from day one never develops a shame or fear of negative emotions. They are actually comfortable with feeling sad. They’ll be more upset about a situation and will want to find comfort in you by talking about it.

This is actually great news. According to many experts from licensed therapists to meditation gurus, children may show more upset at home because it is a safe space for them to fall apart. Knowing you’ve created an environment where your child can feel comfortable venting and letting it all out is a blessing. We have to remember that more often than not our desire to fix feelings is more about us than it is about them. We can’t bear to see them sad or hurting and so if we fix it, then we can feel better. It’s our heart that’s put back together.

Creating a space for children to feel

Children are highly attuned to parents. Your body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice communicate way more than your words do. If your child sees you stressed and upset about their hurt, they may shut it all down to care for you. Children want to make their parents happy and feel good.

According to Jonice Webb, author of Running on Empty, an emotionally dis-regulated parent actually forces a child to abandon their emotional growth and become an emotional caregiver. Over time, this leads to feelings of neglect and the loss of the ability to describe their needs, likes, or set appropriate boundaries as an adult. She recommends maintaining a warm, open, yet somewhat neutral presence as your child works through their crisis. Showing empathy and understanding are critical to letting them know that their feelings make sense.

For example, when a child comes home crying from school, instead of a shocked and worried, “what’s happened?” that may alarm the child and force them to try and play down their feelings, it is better to say, “I see you are so upset. Take your time to feel what you need to and when you are ready to come tell me about it. I am here to listen and offer a hug if that will help”. With a warm and loving tone of voice, this tells the child “you are safe with me”.

Actively listening to your child and offering phrases like, “so you feel x, y, z” is an effective way to put your child at ease and in a calmer state. Often, “I can see why you feel that way” is all the child needs to hear to feel better and move forward.

Reframe and contain

Finally, when they’re ready – or if you sense they remain in a funk about the issue for some time – you can help reframe and contain the situation. This will make them feel less hopeless.

Let’s look at an example when your child says, “I hate school and I’m never going back”. Respond back with the subtle shift from “school is bad” to “today was bad” by saying, “I can see why you felt school today wasn’t so good. What would help tomorrow be better for you?”

For more general upset that is hard to transition out of, you can say, “I notice when you play music that you seem to feel better. Would that help right now?”

If they don’t have answers, or argue that the activity suggestion won’t help, it is an sign that they’re not ready  to feel better yet.  Give them more time to be sad. Tell them it is okay to be sad. Remind them that they can decide when they are ready to move on and feel better.  Chances are a few minutes later you will hear the music drifting out of their room. Children just want to do things on their terms. And when it comes to emotions, that is exactly what will help them become resilient adults.

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