There is nothing we wouldn't do for our kids is there? And when they are suffering in any way, we want to take it away for them because often times, their pain feels like our pain and it's natural to want to relieve both them and ourselves of this feeling.
When it comes to emotional pain however, it's best we don't swoop in and try and take it away for them as that will not help them in the long run. Letting our kids learn emotional resilience is such an important part of their upbringing. Emotional resilience refers to our ability to adapt to stressful situations or crisis. More resilient people are able to 'roll with the punches' and adapt to adversity without lasting difficulties; less resilient people have a harder time with stress and life changes, both major and minor. Sometimes kids don't get to learn emotional resilience in their childhood because mum and/or dad, with the best of intentions, has done what I call the 'swoop in'. They haven't been able to feel their feelings and work things out for themselves.
I wanted to write about this topic because of how familiar I am with it. I am obviously not a psychologist (I am just luckily have regular access to one in my fortnightly appointments) and not an expert of anything. But I am a mum and have learnt a lot about emotional growth and how suppressed emotions manifest in my field of work. So anything I am writing about here is based on my personal experience and research and I'm writing with the hope that it helps someone when it comes to managing their own emotions and those of their child. If you need more help in this area, please seek out professional help. I cannot rate seeing a good psychologist highly enough!
Right. Back to the 'swoop in'. So growing up, my mum hated to see me and my sister upset. She would do anything to rectify the situation for us then and there. Her favourite method of the 'swoop in' was to distract us with something else if we were upset about something. She might have pointed at something to change the topic (look over there at that cat!) or offer some food (here, have a biscuit!)
This can of course cause problems down the track which I will expand on in a minute. My mum's use of distraction method came from her own upbringing and I have no blame towards her for this whatsoever, as it's a very common thing to be taught for the reasons I mentioned in my opening paragraph - that of wanting to take the pain away.
In some instances, like a toddler upset over something trivial because they are over-tired and just looking for something to get their emotions out (the strawberry has too many seeds on the outside for example!) then I don't really see too much harm in safely distracting them from a meltdown. But as our kids grow and develop and start to be upset by the bigger things (sibling rivalry, school work, friendships, sporting and artistic ability to name a few) it is so important to acknowledge these feelings and let them have space at the table, so to speak.
The problem with the distraction method is that the feelings that were coming up, then have no place to go, except back in. And you probably know by now that feelings that are kept in or suppressed often pop up in a larger way when triggered by something else down the track. Even worse, they are kept in so long that they manifest into physical dis-ease. And then of course, we need to know that the bigger the feelings, the bigger the distraction that needs to be found for them to go away.
It's how a lot of addictions start. Food, alcohol, scrolling on our phones, gaming, netflix, gambling, shopping. These can all be used as distractions from our feelings when we are older and we might need to immerse ourselves in them more and more if our unexpressed feelings keep growing and growing. And while these things aren't bad in moderation and when done in a very conscious way, if they are being used as a way to not feel our feelings, we then have an addiction forming. And there is no great outcome when acting within an addiction. But that's a whole other blog!
So now as a parent myself, I am finding it really important to be present when my kids are feeling their feelings. I make sure they try and sit with the feeling and try and identify it so we can give a name to it and talk about it if they are able to. I encourage them to get out as much as they can. I often help them use flower essence blends for this and depending on what the feeling is, I hold them as they cry or encourage them to write about it until the feeling is clearer and then later gone altogether. We sometimes 'rage dance' (that's putting a song on loudly and stomping around until they feel less angry or frustrated) and we sometimes hit our pillow.
Of course I can't always be there for their feelings and they can't always express how they feel at school but if I notice my kids are withdrawn or snappy or angry, I talk to them before they go to sleep at night. In their beds with the lights off and not having to look at me as they share seems to be a great time for letting things out. I've also heard of having a letter writing system where a parent and child can exchange notes to each other in an exercise book and communicate to each other in there. I will be employing this method as soon as my kids don't want me lying with them as they go off to sleep at night. So basically I do the opposite of distracting them from their feelings! ;)
Ok, so now the other 'swoop in' method is trying to be the 'fixer' of the thing that is causing the emotional pain for our child. This is a common 'swoop in' when there is a friendship issue that's upsetting our child and we want to speak to the teacher or another parent to see if we can get the issue resolved on their behalf. I know it can be tempting to want to get involved and find out more information and see if we can reach a resolution for them, but how does that teach our child conflict resolution? They need to practice these things at their level now so they can deal with the higher levels of conflict when they are adults. I absolutely loved this article written by Linda Stade - Parenting Through Your Child's Friendship Issues which explores this topic really well.
Maybe your child is getting frustrated with a task or project and they start getting upset that they aren't good enough or smart enough to get it done. So you take over and do it for them. Problem fixed. Child is happy again. But the real problem is just beginning if we do this isn't it? It creates a couple of scenarios.
Number 1: your child is taught that if something is initially hard, they should just give up as it will somehow get done for them anyway. Number 2: your child stays with the thought process that they aren't smart enough and they are also denied the learning of working it out for themselves and the feeling of satisfaction when they achieve it.
One of the best questions to ask when they are telling you about a problem or you notice they are struggling with something is: 'What do you need right now to help you with this?' and see what they say. Encourage them by asking questions and responding with comments that let them know you understand that this is tough but you are confident they will think of a solution. And if need be, guide them towards the ideas and solutions instead of just handing it to them.
So I know how tempting it can be to do the 'swoop in' of either being a 'distractor' or a 'fixer' (you know I'm writing about this as I have to be mindful of it myself every goddam day don't you?) but as soon as the awareness of what we are doing hits you, you can change tack. We want our parenting to be the best it can be and remembering that no matter how hard it is to see our child in emotional turmoil, we are teaching them a very important part of being human.
We can only teach our child emotional resilience by letting them work through painful issues themselves and modelling this for them when we face our own stresses. The best thing about emotional resilience is that it's like a muscle. The more it's flexed, the stronger it gets.
Of course we are still there for support and we also need to let them know this. We have to get comfortable with allowing them to cry it out into our shoulder. We have to get comfortable with watching them do things the wrong way until they get it right. We have to get comfortable with some resolutions taking longer without our intervention. And most importantly we have to communicate that even though we aren't taking any action for them at that moment in time, we are ALWAYS there for them. To listen to them, to support them and to cheer them on when they succeed. And of course, depending on how badly the situation needs your help and action, be there at the end stage to still do that IF it's still needed. We are their parents after all and they need to know we have their back.
Some flower essence blends I will mention if you and/or your child need some more emotional support and resilience:
For littlies, all the blends in the Calm Kids Pack (Help, Slow Down, Tantrum Taner and Sweet Dreams).
For tweens and teens, all the blends in the Teenager Pack (Teenager, Let it Go, Help and Focus).
And don't forget that parenting is also your very own personal development course! You get to embrace your mistakes and learn from them. You also get to heal parts of your own inner child by consciously parenting your kids. "Swoop ins" are a natural human nature mechanism to stop that feeling of pain, so don't beat yourself up if you've been doing it or were taught to do it.
What did the great Maya Angelou say? Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, you can do better.
Yours in Health,