Acknowledging and embracing negative feelings in order to move through them, rather than fighting, denying or stuffing them down may seem counter intuitive, maybe even counter productive to you as a parent. When your child is experiencing anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, or a combinations of any of these, it can feel impossible not to react by trying to find a way to redirect their thoughts and behavior, or repeated attempts to get them to brush the feelings aside. I know this, because I did this…then I learned to approach my child’s “big” feelings in a different way.
One that helped my child, and me too.
When your child is feeling anxious, angry, disappointed, or overwhelmed, responding by acknowledging the feelings (and helping them identify how they are feeling if they don’t know for sure), and being with them as they embrace the feeling they are having helps them work through it, rather than potentially create a longer term emotional issue.
But, and it’s a BIG but…
YOUR undivided presence and energy are the keys to helping strong emotions move through your child.
By this I mean the attitude (both conscious and unconscious) you bring into the situation with your child and their negative feelings is pivotal.
Let me share a personal example…
A few years ago my daughter (who was nine at the time), began to experience a high level of anxiety around going anywhere…it started with school, but then she didn’t want to go to dance class (which up to that point she appeared to love), church, horseback riding lessons, even to her favorite restaurants, or to a see a movie in a theater. It got to a point where her anxiety not only derailed her everyday life, but the rest of the family’s schedule and overall quality of life as well.
She and I have pretty good communication, so when the anxiety began to surface on a regular basis, I found myself listening attentively and then saying things like, “Try this…”, “You’ll be fine.” “You can do it.” Or, as I was becoming increasingly uneasy and concerned, “You used to love dance, why do you think you are having such a hard time going to class now?” “What’s going on with you?” “How can mom help?” A series of questions coming at her that she did not, and often could not answer. The more I pushed for a response, the less she spoke. Or, in the name of getting somewhere (like school) on time, I would literally dress her, pick her up and put her in the car, and then physically unload and pass her off to school staff at the front door.
It was absolutely miserable for her and for me, for the whole family as they watched this go on for weeks.
Over time, and with the guidance of a terrific counselor, I began to see how I (as her loving, nurturing, super well-intended mom) was contributing to the problem at hand. When my daughter’s anxiety began to kick in, I began to notice mine did as well. The more often she felt nervous the more anxious I became. It got to a point where I was nervous almost all the time in anticipation of her anxiety and what wrench it might throw into our day. It was like we were feeding off of one another!
Oddly enough (or likely not so much so), when I was NINE I went through several months of really debilitating anxiety myself. So, as my daughter was beginning to cycle through this strong emotional pattern I was (at first) unconsciously remembering my own anxious days at her age. Because of my discomfort from a long-ago day I am, prior to understanding better, actually contributing to her issue.
Truly helping my daughter with her anxious moments meant two things; first, becoming aware of my own feelings, energy and contributions to the episodes she was experiencing and working toward centering myself so I could be fully present to her and not adding to her problem. And second, understanding that trying to redirect the way she was feeling, telling her she’d be fine, and trying to push her through the moment only created more problems and a bigger challenge for her.
When I learned to how to acknowledge and work through my own baggage, and meet her in the moment with my full attention, I didn’t ask her questions she didn’t have answers to, and I was able to help her identify and define what she was feeling. I provided for her a safe space and necessary encouragement to allow her feelings to come forth instead of mentally fighting what was going on inside of her.
Was it kind of scary and uneasy for me at first to do this? Yes. But with time and practice the episodes of anxiety became fewer and farther between, and overall less intense.
Whether you are listening or not, our world continually feeds us messages. Most of those through popular media or well-meaning family and friends tend to create a belief we have to look for a way to medicate, redirect, stuff, or ignore difficult emotions. But, as human beings we experience a wide range of feelings and our kids will become more resilient if they are able to identify what they are experiencing and learn that when we fight feelings we actually give them more energy and power.
If your child is experiencing frequent episodes of strong negative feelings, begin to pay attention to what is leading up to the moments when this happens. Also begin to notice what is going on inside of you while it’s happening. Consider responding to the situation with a different approach, or reaching out for professional help if you feel it’s beyond your ability to help your child.