I’ve noticed a consistent pattern over the years as mid-September approaches. While some kids have adjusted seamlessly to the new school year, others are still working out the kinks. Others might have started the year in great spirits, but suddenly seem to be falling apart around the infamous Labor Day mark. This is the time when the adrenaline has worn off, and some legitimate fatigue sets in. Almost like clockwork, I start to hear from parents about lots of tears falling at home.
Watching your child cry is a gut-wrenching experience for any parent. In fact, a child’s cries are one of the most disturbing sounds to human adults, a trait likely passed down from our primitive ancestors who knew they needed to make that awful sound stop, lest it attract wild animals that might devour the family. Our children’s tears, no matter the source, can be extremely challenging to listen to without yielding to our instinct to suppress the emotion.
With all of the best intentions, parents often attempt to convince, reason, and problem-solve during these teary episodes. We do this because we want to help our children develop rational thinking skills and emotional regulation, both of which are crucial components to healthy growth and development. Quite reasonably, want to foster positivity and optimism in our children. We want to calm their anxieties by convincing them there’s nothing to worry about. We want them to hold their heads high when others are making them feel low. However, an unintentional byproduct of our efforts is often an attempt to squash the very emotion that needs to be expressed.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, our children need the opportunity to fully express their concerns without our swooping in to fix them. Quite frankly, this means that we need to let them cry, and if necessary, we need to let them cry a lot. Before we try to help, we must first listen, empathize, and validate. If your child says he or she is “stupid,” for example, don’t immediately dispute the claim. Instead, ask her to tell you more about why she is feeling this way. Try to view the situation from your child’s shoes, ask them how they are feeling, and come alongside them by validating the emotion. By offering children the opportunity to truly examine how they are feeling and why, we are teaching them one of the most effective strategies to regulate emotions. When a child is confident that his feelings will be heard, appreciated, and understood, his brain is less likely to hit the panic button with each disappointment and frustrating event. Children also become less likely to blame or argue and more open to seeking solutions to problems. We all hope to raise children who can feel discouraged or anxious, without giving up. Through the process of sorting through feelings rather than trying to extinguish them, children learn their own triggers, recognize their emotional responses, and can begin to develop healthy ways to cope with life’s inevitable challenges.