Sometimes when my teenager is feeling sad he wonders if it’s actually such a good thing to feel things so deeply. He muses to me that if he didn’t he wouldn’t have to feel sad. He has a good point; when our hearts are soft they feel a lot. But, in good time, I remind him that feelings are feelings and we can’t keep out the ones that are difficult to endure, without also keeping out the ones that are pleasurable. So, each time, we conclude that it’s better to feel than not to feel, even though feelings are hard sometimes.
Sadness, loneliness, despair and anxiety are all feelings that are hard for teens to sit with. Seeing our teens have these feelings can also be hard for us as parents; we might even find ourselves encouraging our teens to “be happy” or reminding them to “look on the bright side.” Just as it is important for my son to understand that, as William Blake wrote, “Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine.” it is important for us as parents to remember this as well. We all want our children to have rich emotional lives so remembering that sadness is simply the flip side of joy can help us to make the same space for “negative” emotions as we do for “positive” ones.
Our preference for “positive” emotions is ubiquitous in our responses to our children’s emotions, no matter their age. Who doesn’t prefer a happily fingerpainting child to one who is yelling and throwing those very same paints? When we support the expression of positive emotions either explicitly (through praise/verbal expressions of approval) or implicitly (through smiles, hugs or attention) and remove this support (through removing our attention, sending our child away or otherwise sending messages of disapproval) when they are expressing “negative emotions” (anger, frustration, irritability, jealousy etc.) we send a clear message about the invitation we are extending to them. With these response we say: “You are welcome to exist in my presence when you are happy/well-behaved/grateful/fun/easy, but you are not welcome when you are •whiny/angry/difficult/sullen.”
When our invitation is conditional, our children try to push away the negative emotions which ends up dulling all their emotions. If a child is not able to feel empty they are equally unable to feel full; they exist in a no-man’s land and become increasingly alienated from their emotional experience. When we wish to support healthy emotional development, we need to find ways to welcome all emotions.
Welcoming frustration as we welcome joy is not easy and the experience of providing space for all emotions is often louder and messier than most of us would like but it is such important work. Emotion is the engine of maturation; when we allow space for emotions we do so in service of our children’s healthy development. This means:
- Making room for tantrums and frustration.
- Finding ways to come alongside our children’s emotions.
- Developing our tolerance for sadness, despair and loneliness.
- Becoming comfortable with setting limits that might frustrate our children–and then sticking with them while they vent/tantrum/yell/cry out that frustration.
When we make room for all parts of our children, not just the parts that are easy, happy, fun or positive, we free them from having to work for love and we provide them with a place of rest. From this place of rest, development and maturation can flow freely… just as Nature intended.
**Interested in learning more about how to create the conditions conducive to your child’s healthy growth & development? The Vital Connection will explore these issues is depth – class begins 10/17.