Creative Child

Helping Children Face Sadness

by Rebecca Eanes

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Changing the circumstances to suit the child may make them appear happier. It can certainly stop the tears and sadness quicker, and that makes it easier on us. But it often comes at the expense of developing a healthy emotional system. Miller explains that adapting to what cannot be changed is an emotional process that requires them to feel the sadness in what can’t or won’t work. Feeling the vulnerability of deep sadness is essential to doing that. It’s our job to gently hold the boundaries in place and make room for their upset and tears, not to change the situation to suit them. When children have caring adults who can hold boundaries and space for big emotions, they not only learn to move through their frustration and are ultimately better for the experience in the long-term. She goes on to say, “Over time, the little things that don’t go their way as children build inside of them the resilience they’ll need one day when they are faced with the inevitable adversity and loss that will come their way as they venture into the world as adults.”

Holding space for tears and upset is something that isn’t easy to do for any child, but unfortunately, it still seems particularly taboo for boys. As a mother raising two sons, the topic of raising emotionally healthy boys has always been of interest to me, so while we were on the subject of sadness, I wanted to get Miller’s take on boys’ emotional health and their need to safely shed tears. She says, “When we consider that boys and girls have the very same emotional systems, it’s mind-boggling to think they would need to be treated differently. Being able to feel their sadness is what moves young children to have their tears. Tears are meant to signal to us they’re upset and in need of our comfort. By the time a child cries tears of sadness, loss, or disappointment, they have already experienced the emotional hurt of things not going their way. When they burst into tears upon hearing they may not have another cookie, it’s an indication they’ve felt the pang of futility associated with not getting what they so desperately want. Their tears are an external sign of their brain’s acceptance of this very sad fact and shows that they have entered the emotional process of adapting to circumstances they can’t change or control.”

We interrupt nature’s brilliant process of brain adaption any time we shame, ignore, or punish a child for crying. A young child who is repeatedly dismissed or treated harshly for expressing vulnerability will begin to suppress their feelings and try to stop those tears from coming. This does not take away the emotional hurt. Instead of processing it through tears of sadness, it may be expressed as aggression because a young child cannot release their frustration in a soft and vulnerable way. 

 

This is why it is important to let the natural process play out and allow both boys and girls to have their tears while we lovingly hold space for them to do so. We needn’t worry about boys looking weak for expressing what are very natural emotions to all humans. Miller says, “Boys, who from a young age are encouraged to share their tears and emotions will naturally grow into men who feel their vulnerability and express themselves in socially acceptable ways. Nature wires their mature brains in such a way that they have self-control and do not need to physically act out on their frustration or burst into tears whenever they feel moved by powerful emotions. This is because they’re able to feel their emotions. Rather than suppressing or acting out on them, they learn to process them and find healthy ways to express themselves. Knowing this, there’s no reason for us to fear the tears of our boys or cling to the misguided belief that tears are unmanly.” 

To summarize, our children don’t need us to rescue them from sadness or other unpleasant emotions. Doing so, in fact, interrupts the natural process of brain adaptation that helps children build resilience. All emotions are part of the beautiful human experience and are necessary for growth. Rather, children simply need a safe space to feel their feelings. They need to be allowed to work through them without being shamed or shushed. The real work here is often in ourselves. We experience discomfort when our children are faced with sadness, and so we feel moved to “fix” it as quickly as possible. If we, too, can learn to feel our own discomfort and to sit with that emotion ourselves without trying to push it away, we can grow in resilience right alongside our children. 

For more insight from Miller, visit www.bridgettmiller.com and see her book, What Young Children Need You to Know

Rebecca Eanes is the bestselling author of multiple books including Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, The Positive Parenting Workbook, and The Gift of a Happy Mother. She is the grateful mom of two boys. 

 

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