This past summer, my preschooler was running along the sidewalk when he tripped. I picked him up and held him close.
The fall didn’t seem so bad, but he unleashed fierce tears. I asked him if he wanted some ice or a Band-Aid. How about some animal crackers? I just wanted him to feel better. He shook his head and said, “I just want to cry.”
His statement was profound, and made me think that sometimes the best way to support my child is not to stop his tears quickly, but to be patient enough to let them roll. I could see he was having a good cry, and thought about how healing tears can be. In fact, studies show crying reduces stress and improves mood.
How can I show my child I’m there for him while giving him the space and power to handle his own hurts?
I also considered the importance of children managing their feelings with a certain amount of independence. I hoped my insights would help me navigate the wild world of mothering young children, but still, I struggled.
How can I show my child I’m there for him while giving him the space and power to handle his own hurts? How can I comfort him without coddling? If tears from sadness and pain are encouraged, what about expressions of frustration and rage? How can I give him the freedom to express uncomfortable feelings without making fit-throwing commonplace?
My desire to encourage his emotional strength gets halted by my fear of being too aloof. And as much as I want to show him that his feelings aren’t scary, enduring his meltdowns make my blood run fast and hot.
I had questions and luckily I found answers by bumping into Dr. Linnda Durre in Trader Joe’s. My cute kids and I attracted her attention, and she handed me her business card, which I made good use of. She is a world-renowned psychotherapist with over 40 years of experience working with young children, teens, and families.
She has shared her expertise on Oprah, 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, and the Today Show, among many other platforms. By chance, I got to tap into her wisdom, too.
Interested in the balance of being a sensitive, yet commanding mother, I asked her questions like, “How can parents allow their children to express negative feelings without pitying them or inviting tantrums?”
She said her go-to strategy for validating the unpleasant emotions of young children is mirroring their words and facial expressions. She advises parents to vocalize the inner voice of the child. She gave an example of what she would say to a child who just had something taken from her, “Amy, I know you’re upset. Bobby took the toy that you wanted. You’re angry and sad. We’re going to go play with something else right now and when we’re done, you will be able to have that toy back because we will talk with Bobby and he’ll probably be finished playing with it.”
Dr. Durre’ explained that tears contain depressants, so when a child or adult needs to cry, they are doing exactly the right thing to eliminate depressants from their system. “I feel so much better after a good cry,” is an accurate statement, both emotionally and physiologically.
I told her that sounds lovely, but what if the parent feels too frustrated to calmly and warmly mirror their children? I told her about my 4-year-old who whines and complains when it’s time to turn the TV off. I’d love to patiently say, “You’re upset. It’s hard when the TV goes off. We’ll watch more again tomorrow.” But in reality, I’m often too aggravated by his behavior to respond like that.
In this case, Dr. Durre says to state the rules, take a break, and let them have their temper tantrum in their room in private.
I mentioned how hard it is to endure temper tantrums. My son was a three-year-old not so long ago, and his intense displays of emotions worked me up, no matter how detached I tried to be. Dr. Durre recommended repeating to them, “I know you’re angry and it’s OK to be angry. You can cry as loudly as you want in your room, so it’s fine with me for you to go there now, Justin. When you’re finished crying, we can talk about it. I love you and care about you and your feelings.”
You can walk them to their room, carry them there, or point the way so they can have their fit in while you put in your ear plugs.
Empathy does not mean parents should take on the emotions of their children or allow themselves to be a punching bag – from emotional, verbal and/or physical abuse from their children. It’s perfectly okay to wait for the storm to pass before connecting. It’s the equivalent of a much needed time-out.
One of the keys in giving children freedom to express themselves is providing a firm framework of acceptable behaviors, as well as clear expectations and predictable routines. This gives them a sense of safety and they know you are in charge. It’s authoritative parenting – clear, firm, and warm, with limits, boundaries and high expectations. This differs from authoritarian, permissive, and negligent parenting styles.
If children know what the rules are regarding TV time, they are less likely to have a difficult time when it’s over. They are free to be angry, and know they are not allowed to hit, throw things, or damage property. Want to yell? Go outside or go to your room. Boundaries are important. Children are given freedom, but not free-reign.
Dr. Durre’ could feel my overwhelming desire to be understanding and accepting of my little ones even when they’re at their worst, and warned me that children can be master manipulators. She stated that research from infant study centers revealed babies as young as 3 months can “read the room” and know who will pick them up.
Empathy should not be confused with over-indulgence and excessive permissiveness. An empathetic parent would say, “I know you’re upset that the TV is off now. Let’s find something else to do.” An overly-permissive parent might say, “Okay, you can watch another episode.” The firm parent actually fosters greater emotional security and resilience in her children because she gives them more opportunities to work through unpleasant feelings and the child knows you’re there to set limits, be the parent, and enforce the rules.
You can be warm and “friendly”, but you are not their “friend” – which connotes equality. Dr. Durre says if a child doesn’t respect the parent there is endless limit testing, temper tantrums, sneakiness, rebellion, and passive-aggressiveness.
Kids feel safer knowing they will be kept in bounds. It gives them security, which they all need.
When children don’t get their way, they tend to say hurtful things, like “You’re a mean mommy!” or “I wish Bryan’s mommy was my mommy because she’s nice.” But parents shouldn’t be fooled by their harsh words – kids truly feel happier knowing their parents are leaders. They feel safer knowing they will be kept in bounds. It gives them security, which they all need.
Empathetic parents are understanding, but aren’t afraid to say no. Children learn their feelings aren’t scary, and are free to process them fully. They also learn that tears carry little weight in manipulating a parent who sees crying as merely a normal emotional response. Handing over quick-fixes sends the message that their feelings make us uncomfortable. Letting children face their frustration shows that we trust in their ability to solve problems and cope.
As my son revealed when he skinned his knee, sometimes the best way to be there for our children is to give them the freedom to cry.