As parents, we have the natural desire to protect our children. When they are babies and they cry, we pick them up and soothe them, telling them everything will be OK. As they get older, we may try to distract them with a favorite toy or fix their problem, so they feel better. Although these are natural parental urges, they may not help children learn to be resilient by accepting and moving through big feelings. Anger and sadness are part of life and learning to handle upset, helps us to be emotionally healthy and find more joy in life.
Last year, my son announced that the pandemic had “ruined his life.” He did not enjoy learning online and found it difficult to stay focused during Zoom lessons. His grades dropped dramatically, and he missed his friends. After weighing the risks and benefits, he finished Fifth grade in person. When he got into a magnet program for middle school, we hoped he would go back to thriving at school. Instead, his middle school experience has been a roller coaster ride of friendships, hormones, inclusion/exclusion, online bullying, and learning personal responsibility. There have been lots of tears and big emotions. Any parent would feel deeply for a child that was going through painful emotions, but on top of that, I have been struggling with the grief of losing my father and grandparents.
In an article by Katie McLaughlin, she uses a tunnel analogy to talk about parenting when children are having big feelings. The analogy resonated with me both in terms of my own feelings and what my son is going through. She writes, “Difficult feelings are tunnels, and we are trains traveling through them. We have to move all the way through the darkness to get to the…calm peaceful light at the end.” Where we go wrong as well-meaning parents is trying to talk our children out of their feelings, rescue them, or discount their emotions by saying everything will be OK. Of course, it hurts us to see our children in pain, but we are missing out on teaching them to be resilient. The voice we use with them becomes their inner voice as they grow into adulthood.
McLaughlin talks about how as adults we don’t always move all the way through the “tunnel.” We try to hide by saying everything is fine when it isn’t, or we use distractions like food, shopping, and alcohol. When we can accept and release our feelings, we feel better. I want to help myself and my son move through our “tunnels.” I commit to remembering that expressing big feelings is not a sign of failure but instead of success. When I allow myself to feel, I can handle the discomfort of my child’s big feelings. I can empathize and allow life’s natural consequences and lessons to take place while supporting my child through the emotional tunnel.
My prayer for all of us is that we will recognize that emotions pass, and big feelings are a part of life, helping us to heal, and become more resilient. Instead of distracting our children or rescuing them from their feelings, we can help by being self-regulated, giving them both a sense of safety and being heard and seen, as they move through the tunnel.
Gigi Khalsa ,