Recently I was venting to my mom on the phone. I was feeling overwhelmed. Frustrated. Alone. I realized that she couldn’t fix my problem, but I just needed to vent.
My mom must have been feeling frustrated or tired or irritated as well, because after a moment of my ranting she said, “Well you know what? That’s life!”
She wasn’t wrong, of course. But that didn’t mean I felt inclined to thank her for the dose of reality—for essentially telling me to just deal with it. Instead my natural reaction was to move into fight or flight, and I nearly hung up on her. What I really needed at that moment was not a life lesson; what I needed was to feel heard and validated and understood. What I needed was empathy.
Now, I’m not writing this to incriminate my mom in any way (she’s actually usually really great at empathizing). Rather, this experience got me thinking about how often we do this to the children in our lives, and how they must feel when we do. For most of us, empathy is not our automatic response.
For example, not long ago my three-year-old dropped her plate of food and it spilled all over the floor. She lost it. She was so upset. My husband and I automatically began an attempt to console her, saying things like, “Calm down—it’s okay!”, “We can get you more food!” and “You’re fine.”
That phrase—“You’re fine.” We say it all the time. Why do we say it, when they clearly are not “fine” inside?
I think, for most of us, it’s because our child’s big emotions make us uncomfortable and we feel an urgent need to stop the upset. This is partly a hard-wired response that ensures we will meet our children’s needs. But I believe it is also the result of being taught our whole lives that big, negative emotions are unacceptable. Our parents worried, and now we worry, that if we indulge children’s sadness and tears then they will become whiney and emotionally fragile. We feel the need to “toughen them up.” Because this is how we were raised, most of us never learned how to process negative emotions appropriately, and instead try to repress them. Unfortunately, repressed emotions don’t just go away—rather they pop up uncontrolled at times (such as when our child has a meltdown) and threaten again to overwhelm us (which we still find uncomfortable). And so what do we do? We get triggered (we move into fight or flight) and we try again to stuff these emotions. We do whatever we can to get our child to calm down and be “good” (i.e. happy and cooperative). Sometimes we even get so triggered in these moments that we yell at our child (anger is a defense against more vulnerable emotions).
The interesting thing about all this? If we, as human beings, are encouraged and allowed to notice and feel our negative emotions, without acting on them in the moment, they evaporate. This happens because our emotions are trying to send us a message, and when we acknowledge the emotions, they can then stop alerting us because the message has been received. What’s more, if someone we love and trust witnesses us feeling our emotions and “holds space” for us, our connection with them deepens. We are then much more likely to accept any guidance they may give us. (Source)
I remembered all of this mid-sentence while consoling my daughter. So I stopped. I got down and hugged her and said, “You are so upset that your food fell on the floor. That was yours and you wanted to eat it, didn’t you?” Through her tears she said, “Yeah.” A few minutes later she was calm and had a new plate of food and all was well. Not only was she given an opportunity to feel the emotions that were swamping her so that they could dissipate and she could move on, but she also felt my understanding and knew that I was on her team.
Consider the Biblical account of Lazarus’ death in the book of John. Jesus was away when his friend died. Upon returning to Bethany, Jesus found that Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, were understandably grief-stricken with the loss of their brother. They had great faith that, had Christ been there, their brother would not have died. Imagine the overwhelming disappointment and sadness they must have felt knowing what could have been, but tragically was not, their reality. Jesus, however, knew that Lazarus would momentarily live again. How easy would it have been for him to downplay the loss Mary and Martha had experienced, knowing the joy that soon would follow. He testified to Martha of resurrection, but he never made light of what these sisters were going through. Instead, he not only allowed them their grief, but because of the love he had for his friends, “Jesus wept” with them (see John 11:35). He felt their pain, their grief, their loss. He validated their feelings and honored their experience. Then, and only then, he raised their beloved brother from the dead.
Similarly, our view is often broader than that of our children. Something that seems so inconsequential to us feels to them like their world is ending. We can tell them they’re fine, or to deal with it because “that’s life.” We can even try to convince them to see the bigger picture and to cheer them up prematurely. But if we do, what might we—or they—lose in the process?