As a child you may have tripped or fallen and were told “don’t cry” just as you were about to let out your tears.
Now, as adults many of us repeat this phrase to our partners, children, or loved ones.
Your little one’s emotional expression is growing by leaps and bounds.
She may be expressing separation anxiety, fear of the dreaded vacuum cleaner, or fascination as she gazes at her reflection in the mirror.
She may express many of her newfound emotions by crying loudly—and you may cringe in response.
But what is so wrong with crying? What perceptions of crying have you developed? Does crying mean you are “weak,” or are you afraid it will make others uncomfortable if you cry? Do you say “don’t cry” because you are uncomfortable seeing someone express sadness or because you would not be sure how to handle it if they did cry? As you can imagine there are many feelings that could come up around this. But what message are we giving our children when we tell them to hold back their tears?
When we tell someone not to do something, it is typically because it is seen as unacceptable (for whatever reason). So, we are telling our children that crying is not acceptable, when, in fact, it is a normal and helpful response to expressing sadness. In addition to the message we are sending our children, we are also encouraging them to hold back or even stifle their feelings. This is a pattern that could follow them into their adult years and hinder their relationships and personal growth. It can be difficult to break free from perceptions we develop about feelings, whether they are about sadness, anger, frustration, or insecurity.
To encourage your child’s expression of feelings, there are two changes that you can make to help your child express their feelings in an effective manner—
Reflect back your child’s feelings.
Acknowledge and validate your child’s emotions.
For instance, if you notice your child pouting when you pick them up from school, take notice and say, “It seems like you’re upset. I’m here, if you want to talk about it.” Your child will be encouraged to label his or her feelings and appreciate that you are taking notice of them and showing support.
Notice your own feelings and do something about them.
When you notice yourself becoming upset you can say, “I am starting to get frustrated. I am going to take a 10 minute break in my room.”
You will be modeling for your child how you would want them to manage anger, while also taking care of yourself so you can be more effective in solving whatever issues arise.
As with any other parenting practice, encouraging your child’s emotional expression requires practice, practice, practice! It’s okay to fumble through and make a few mistakes along the way.
You are human, too.