When I was younger my mother would regularly take to me to a nearby beach. We would normally spend some of that time walking along the beach, picking and choosing some things to inspect more closely as we went. One day I found a piece of seashell buried in the sand. I was expecting to discover that it was yet another fragment of a shell, but as I pulled on it, I felt resistance. When it became completely dislodged, I was shocked to see that it was huge and beautiful. I remember being so excited in my 7-year-old mind I tied the uniqueness of my ocean treasure to me being special in some way. I took it home and painted it blue and put the date on the bottom corner. Show-and-tell time came at school, and I was sure my prized object would elicit many ooh’s and ahh’s from my classmates; yet, as I placed it on my desk in preparation to share it, some boys started horsing around and bumped into my desk. In an instant, my prized shell became like all the other fragmented shells on the beach. I cried and cried, and no amount of reassurance made me feel better.
As parents we know that sadness and disappointment are unavoidable, but that doesn’t make it any easier when we witness our own kids deal with these emotions. In talking with parents 1-on-1 coaches every day, I’ve come to categorize ineffective parenting responses in two ways: Overreacting or Minimizing. Specifically, I think it can be easy to overreact to our child’s behaviors, or tempting to minimize our child’s feelings. I have many parents questioning whether or not their child’s emotional response to a situation is normal… That can look like anything from a teenager crying because they can’t see their boyfriend/girlfriend to an 8-year-old boy crying about his performance in a baseball game.
All too often, we want to fix these moments for our kids by convincing them that It’s not that big a deal, or, in my case, There are plenty of shells to find on the beach. It’s sort of like when you get dumped and your friend is telling you that you’ll find the person of your dreams someday or better yet, is motioning that they’ll call that certain person they’ve been mentioning to you for months and set up a blind date. Does any of that make it better (Short answer: No!) I think the other important thing to bear in mind is that just because you don’t consider it disappointing in your world doesn’t mean that the disappointment for your child is any less real. As adults, we have to deal with losing jobs, homes, family members, money and let’s face it, sometimes it may be hard to really listen to your child bawling about a bad test score and be able to relate!!
But truly listening is a powerful thing. It sends the message to your child that you can accept their emotional state. Sometimes as parents, we don’t realize that when we overreact to a situation, our children can easily turn that into a message of, There must be something wrong with what I’m doing/ saying/feeling.
It’s very important to let your child sit with his or her feelings of sadness or disappointment don’t rush in and try to make it better for them. In some situations, after they’ve calmed down you may be able to help them not only solve the problem of what to do when they’re sad, but what they can do to solve the problem that caused the disappointment in the first place (e.g. a poor test grade). James Lehman would say that as parents, it’s important to accept the fact that your child will have bad days and bad moods we all encounter them. Usually, what’s called for is a combination of some space and someone to take our emotions seriously when the time is right.
For all the parents out there who are uncomfortable with their child’s sadness, remember that it’s temporary. Letting them sit with their disappointment allows them to build up resistance for future moments when they’re made vulnerable. It also shows them how to deal with disappointment in a healthy way without expecting to be rescued from their uncomfortable feelings.