“But.I.Want.It.Nooooow.” Rings a bell? Well, I have one clue: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The annoying bratty little girl that wants everything she sees and nothing stops her from demanding what she wants. And it should all happen “now”. Her dad does everything in his power to please his little brat at all costs. The more he gives her what she wants, the more her tantrums escalate, and immediately scoops to her next wish. You’ve got the point, it’s the Veruca syndrome, or in other words, parents foolishly trying to keep their kids happy at any costs.
Yes times are busy these days, yes parents work full time and don’t have the patience and availability to sit down and wait for kids to experience their emotions full time when handing them a phone at the restaurant or a lollipop in the store is by far a faster choice. But these quick problem solving systems have only created a bunch of unhappy, frustrated, insecure kids and young adults, who are learning to look outside themselves for answers to their problems.
Instead of letting children feel the strong emotions – such as frustration, disappointment, unhappiness, anger or loss, we have the urge to step in and act as human pacifiers. The second something happens to our kids, we rush in to help them get up, or stop crying, or interrupt their fights. We basically almost fight for them. Haven’t you noticed some of the most common examples in the park? If you’re a mom, you have definitely met this scene before – kids playing in the sandpit, moms chatting, one kid falls down, mom rushes in to pick him up even if he’s not even crying or hurt. Mom did not even give him a 3-second space to observe if anything has gone wrong, the first instinct is to step in and take away the pain. Same goes in arguments, tantrums, discussions, etc. Why let kids suffer if we have the possibility to take away the pain quickly? Quickly but foolishly, that is…
Well, big mistake… As Dr. Robin Berman, author of “Permission to Parent” put it, “to have happy kids, you must teach them to be unhappy”. We must practice letting our children express their feelings – negative or positive- without chiming in to fix it, or give them solutions, or solve it for them. Instead, ask “Why do you think this thing went sideways? What would you do different the next time?” Validate their feelings, let them know you get them, you are there, but you can’t rescue them from all these big feelings.
“Children and grown-ups who are at home with their emotions are more at home with themselves, and have an easier time navigating work, friendships, and love. Conversely, adults and teens who can’t regulate their feelings more often turn outside of themselves to self-soothe. They self-medicate with food, drugs, alcohol, they cling to bad relationships, become codependent, etc. When these individuals become too anxious, too sad, or too easily triggered, they end up in a therapist’s office or they take a seat on a permanent emotional roller coaster. And that ride isn’t fun.”
In my own journey as a mother, I felt that empathy was from the beginning the key in forming a strong, emotional safety in our home. In this era of prising the concept of ‘busy‘, mothers taking pride in calling themselves over-the-head-busy, working, traveling, going out, putting their kids in all sorts of activities, after school programs, violin, Chinese and Judo lessons, it’s refreshing to step back and acknowledge that the most important thing you can actually offer your kids – especially starting at an young age- is emotional intelligence. A stepping stone and a building brick towards any other kind of intelligence. The one that matters the most. Teach them how to not avoid or numb feelings, but instead teach them to have emotional flexibility to soothe themselves, and work through their emotions. Let them be unhappy if they need to, but show them empathy.
I am happy and proud to see my son show such a great empathy towards us, friends or strangers in the park. My heart bursts when I watch him help others, or ask about how they are feeling, or offer to lie in bed with me if he sees I’m not feeling well. Actions and words he expresses without being asked to – it just comes naturally. But remember – walking the walk and talking the talk is the secret, as kids mirror everything they see at home. What they see, they replicate. What they feel, they replicate.
Maybe stopping tears quickly with different tools might be good for the short-term, but trust me, letting children feel their feelings and work through their emotions is the secret to having long-term happy kids.
I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it. Baby steps, every day.