TOLERATING YOUR CHILD’S NEGATIVE FEELINGS
I have been watching parents during this past month, dropping off their children in school for the first time, or dropping off their children in new classes where they have to get used to new teachers, a new classroom, and perhaps new class members.
It is clear to me that parents experience a number of emotions during this process, and to varying degrees. Probably the most difficult thing for parents to deal with is experiencing their child’s distress.
Children starting school for the first time are of course going through their own set of feelings. These feelings will vary depending on their age and their own experiences. They may at any given moment be feeling fear of separation, desire to be with their parents, anxiety about change, worry about their parents feelings, desire for independence, fear of independence, uncertainty about how they fit into the group, and so on.
But parents may be having more complex emotions because their range of experiences is deeper than their child’s. So a parent may be feeling another layer of anxiety because she was not encouraged to be independent, or she was encouraged to be independent at a too young age. These feelings may play out when she separating from her child.
Current events in a parent’s life might be a factor. A father may have just lost his own parent and he may be feeling a sense of loss and fear that he does not quite recognize, and this could impact his own attitude to letting go of his child.
Those are all things a parent can take the time to reflect on during the course of these first days of school. However, there is another issue that I think is important to address and that is how a parent tolerates the discomfort of the child.
It is a parent’s duty to take care of his or her child. Feeding, clothing, nurturing a child are part of this role. And making sure you respond to your child’s emotional distress is a part of your duty also. But children need to experience frustration or they won’t know how to deal with it. It is important for parents to be able to understand that when a toddler cries, you need to be able to tolerate his distress and sit with it for a while, and when a 6-year old has a meltdown because ‘my friend didn’t play with me,’ you do not rush to the phone to call the parents of the other child.
Very often a child does not want or need your help or advice. In fact they will reject it. “You lost your toy? Don’t worry I will get you a new one!” may elicit a tantrum. The child does not want a NEW toy, he is crying because he wants you to acknowledge that he is hurting because he lost this one. He does not want you to fix the hurt, he wants you to sit with him, to be a witness to his feelings.
It is sometimes difficult for parents to realize that the best gift you can give your child is to say: “I know, it’s horrible to lose a toy. I know how you feel. You feel sad, you feel terrible.” How does this help a child? It helps them because you are saying: “I get it. I KNOW what you feel.” And that’s what we all want.
It is often hard for parents to tolerate the sadness, the rage, the disappointments, the feelings of loss a child experiences, but it is such a comfort to a child when a parent doesn’t try to move on, or change the subject, or fix the problem, but just lingers for a time, right in the moment and says: “Yes, this is really awful. You hate it when you lose something.”
It is truly painful to watch your child be unhappy, but it’s important to be able to feel your own discomfort and tolerate it while your child learns to tolerate hers. Sitting in an uncomfortable place and being there while your child goes through distress, and telling her you know what it’s like to feel bad is much more helpful than promising her you will fix all her problems for her.