Let children get to know their whole spectrum of feelings

A few days ago, we said goodbye to Dante and Milo’s beloved grandmother and grandfather who visited us for ten days. We haven’t seen them in six months, and Dante and Milo have enjoyed the attention and play like kings. When we waved them off, we noticed that Dante was restless and serious and in the elevator back to our apartment he began to hit the wall and stomped on the floor. We asked him to stop but noticed that something was wrong. As we left the elevator, Krister kneeled in front of him and asked how he felt. Dante burst into a heartbreaking cry in Krister’s arms and continued to do so for a good while.

As a parent, it is difficult and sometimes heartbreaking to see your children cry hysterically and be so sad when you only wish them joy and happiness.

That’s why it’s also tempting to try to make them happy and cheer them up by giving them something tasty to eat, watching TV, play with the tablet or giving them a toy. But it’s easy to make it into a routine, and by that never let them get to know and feel all their feelings, the pleasant and the unpleasant ones.

The risk of never letting them be in their sorrow is that the feeling itself will be scary and they will do all they can to avoid it in the future. Have they learned to eat something tasty when they are sad they will continue to eat to feel a little bit better and by that avoid the sorrow. It leads to an unhealthy relationship to food when eating is to control feelings instead of eating to control hunger and fuel the body with energy and nutrition.

What might seem to be a good thing at the moment may be a risky business in the long term. To always cheer children up when upset isn’t viable for one day they will encounter sadness and sorrow. If they aren’t able to manage them or have experienced that the discomfort will reach a peak only to decline they will do everything in their power to avoid it. They don’t know that the discomfort will pass, that after the rain the sunshine awaits. Children who haven’t had enough experience with this in childhood are likely to look for something else to suppress the discomfort and might turn to foods, buying things which they might not even afford, drugs or alcohol.

They will succeed to dampen unpleasant feeling at first by using material things, food or mood suppressants but without inner control. Since no one can entirely avoid discomfort in life, they will continue to be dependent on things outside of them which ultimately if not dealt with can result in obesity, deep debts or substance abuse which affects the overall quality of life.

Pain, sorrow, sadness, anger and other unpleasant feelings are an inevitable part of life. The goal isn’t to avoid them but to learn to manage them.

Experience is a great way to learn, and some things can just be taught by this, it’s therefore not strange that CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) uses ways to confront and enhance the experience in certain situations to learn that discomfort rises, reaches a peak and then declines. Unpleasant feelings are needed to be experienced so that you also know that you can come out of it, still alive, still sane (most often at least) and feel joy again. Sit next to your children, comfort them if they want but don’t take away the experience by always offering something to relief it. If you can’t stand it, how will they?

Life is supposed to be lived, both the ups and the downs, let your children know it all, and they will grow up knowing they can outlive it all, all by themselves.

We sat next to Dante and let him cry until he calmed down and we could talk about how we could keep in touch with his grandparents and how fun we had these days. He is still sad and misses them, but he got through the worst grief and experienced that the sky is clearing up, and the sun is slowly shining through the clouds. He’ll be okay and he knows it.