Sometimes, I make decisions or set limits that my kids don’t like (OK, probably more often than sometimes). From video games, to friends coming over to play, to staying up late…there are plenty of limits on which my kids and I disagree. And I have one child in particular who makes saying no difficult. Not because he’s too cute or sweet to say no to, but because every no brings a very vocal wave of unhappiness–whining, arguments, belligerence. With this child, I totally understand the inclination to be permissive; to say Yes just to avoid the aftermath of No. It can be emotionally exhausting.
But I do say no, and I do let his feelings come. To avoid the emotional exhaustion that follows in the wake of normal parenting decisions and interactions, I try to remember three things:
- They’re his feelings, not mine. He is capable of handling them, just as I am capable of handling my own feelings. I do not need to try to fix them.
- I am not the cause of his feelings. I will take care of my kids by meeting their needs on a regular basis–this means setting limits, ensuring safety, and nourishing them physically and emotionally. I will do that, and their happiness is up to them.
- It’s not personal. My kids’ feelings are not a personal slight against me. I am not a bad mom if my kids are ever upset. I didn’t do anything wrong by saying No.
Remembering these things helps to put some distance between myself and my child’s emotional turmoil. Readers, you know I am all about staying connected to kids, but at times like these, I can feel too close. I take my kids’ emotions personally. Their upset feelings upset me. Their hurts are my hurts. Their frustrations make me antsy. I want to help. I want to step in and fix what’s wrong. I want to take away their problems and just make everyone happy again.
It’s this line of thinking is not entirely helpful for raising capable, confident kids. Children will often become upset by the decisions we make as parents, and you know what? That’s OK! That is the only way they will develop a sense of capability, coping, problem solving, and general resilience. A child feeling upset is not a problem for parents to solve.
Remembering this allows me to put some distance between me and the emotional meltdown. When I can distance myself, I can empathize instead of sympathize. (What’s the difference?). I can offer support instead of special services or coddling (“Oh here, I’ll do ___ for you. Does that help?”). I can trust instead of rescue. I can be a more calm, confident mom.
That said, there are ways to maintain a connected relationship while distancing yourself from a child’s in-the-moment feelings. Here’s how:
- Pause. Take a breath. Give kids give time and space with their own feelings. This means you set the limit and accept the feelings that ensue. Don’t get angry with children for their feelings or tell them not to be upset.
- Check in. Periodically ask how they’re doing. This is not the time to talk about the situation, but just to let them know you understand how they feel. “I know you’re mad, and that’s OK. Would you like a hug?” Trust in their ability to handle their feelings.
- Follow-up. Always come back together and do something fun. You can touch base on the previous situation, or not. But do something with your child that he enjoys and will foster some connective energy between the two of you. Make cookies, play games, go for a walk, dig in the garden, ride bikes, read, go to the park, blow bubbles….pretty much anything you do together will communicate to your child that you love and accept him despite his anger at you, and you’re not holding his feelings against him.
As much as we love it when our kids are expressing their happiness, it just is not our job to ensure that they are happy all of the time. It’s OK to say no. It’s OK to distance yourself from the onslaught of emotions so you are better able to respond with kindness, firmness, empathy, and trust (trust that they will survive it).
What about you? Do you ever have a hard time separating yourself from your child’s feelings? What do you find most helpful in those moments?