When our kids have “big feelings,” intense emotional reactions to a situation, we as parents can end up having big feelings, too. Our kids can be pretty good at pulling feelings and emotional reactions from us. Most of us would probably agree that responding to our kids with sensitivity and empathy is a good thing, but can that backfire?
Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of “The Blessing of a B Minus”, writes about a concept she calls, “respectful detachment.” She encourages parents of teenagers to allow their adolescent to feel the discomfort of problems, mistakes, frustrations, and conflicts. She writes that parents often rush in to provide a solution or a fix for their kids with good intentions – we don’t want our kids to hurt and we don’t want them to make a mistake that might jeopardize their future – but, if we don’t allow them to make mistakes and experience the negative emotions related to that, they will not learn how to make better decisions or that they can recover from disappointments. She argues that sheltering our teens from negative experiences can lead to raising “dangerously fragile” young adults.
The “detachment” part basically means step back and let your kids solve it/figure it out/deal with it/ignore it/avoid it/feel it and allow natural consequences to evolve. The “respectful” part allows us to be sensitive and empathetic. But remember- step back. You can be sensitive “I’m sorry you’re having such a bad day”, or empathetic, “that must really hurt to check out Snapchat and see your friends are all hanging out together,” but you don’t have to take away the bad day or the hurt. You don’t have to do anything to fix it. You don’t call their friend’s mom and invite your kid over. You don’t offer to host a party for your kid and allow them to leave those kids out. You let them feel it and you step back, knowing that this does feel bad and it will get better.
I remember when I was in middle school, my best friend invited me to come to her house. When I got there, I couldn’t find her. She and another friend were actually hiding from me. I realized they were hiding and I was so upset picturing them hiding and watching me and laughing at me. I ran home, ran up to my room and listened to Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On” on repeat. I cried and cried and cried. I was sure that I would never feel better. I have no idea if my parents had any clue what was going on; I don’t remember them asking me why I came home so quickly or why my eyes were so puffy or what the horrible animal-like crying sounds were coming from my room. I don’t know if they detached intentionally (used to my big feelings already) or if they were just oblivious, but I didn’t need a parent to rush in and call my friend’s mom OR to tell me that my friend was a bully and that I shouldn’t play with her anymore. I felt bad and then I felt better. And, of course, the next day my best friend and I made up.
When parents feel so much for their kids, when they take on their adolescents’ feelings and almost over-empathize with them, perhaps taking over, we may take away the opportunity for learning and healing. We also may inadvertently reinforce that their problem very well could be the end of the world. When a middle school kid feels that a friend playing a trick (albeit a mean trick) is the worst thing ever, our respectful detachment can send the message, “yes, it hurts, and it will get better” as opposed to “this is the worst thing ever!!! You may never recover from this and I can’t believe she would do that to you!!!!!” Think back to your toddler running and falling. Sometimes, almost automatically and immediately, those kids look to a parent to figure out how to react – should they get up and keep running, or cry. When a parent is calm and nonchalant, that kid gets up and continues running. When a parent exclaims, “oh no!” and rushes over, the kid starts crying.
Stepping back and letting your child feel a little discomfort can start early. It’s ok for your child to feel frustrated. If your child is doing a puzzle/zipping a coat/trying to climb a jungle gym and runs into a little trouble, wait. Avoid rushing in and doing for your child. When we see our young children getting frustrated, we may feel like we want to help and so we end up doing. Or, it may be annoying to listen to their whining or frustration sounds so we help ourselves by fixing the problem thereby eliminating the whining. When we let our kids feel the frustration and we reinforce them for trying, working it out, or persisting, we send the message that they are competent and capable and that the frustrated feeling is not necessarily something to be avoided. These are kids who can learn to stick with a puzzle and then later will stick with a tricky math assignment.
Instead of doing for, wait. Your child may figure it out without help. If so, offer praise, “wow – you stuck with that tricky puzzle and you got it!” If not, a simple, “let me know if you need help” teaches a child how to ask for help, on his terms and if he needs it. If your child asks for help, offer a bit of help – just get the zipper started or turn the puzzle piece, then let your child pick it up from there. After that start, she may be able to figure out the rest. If you have a child who gets frustrated easily and has “big feelings” and “big reactions” to tricky situations, praise her when she stays calm, “That was hard, but you stayed calm and figured it out!”
Sometimes parents try to shield their kids from feeling disappointment. They might not want to tell their kids about some upcoming plans in case they fall through. They might feel bad if their kids get their hopes up only to be let down, so they avoid the situation by waiting to tell them until they’re sure it’s happening. Not me. I don’t even think I could keep this up if I tried. I joke that with me as a mom, my kids are pretty used to disappointment. I’m also pretty good at finding the positive side of things so I remind myself that this helps them to be better problem solvers and more resilient overall. My 9 year old was allowed to invite one friend for a night at Dave and Busters and a sleepover to celebrate her birthday. Hours before, her friend got sick and had to cancel. My daughter, with countless disappointments under her belt, simply shrugged and said, “that’s ok – can we just reschedule?”
Don’t Fear the Feelings
No matter what “big feeling” (or maybe more to the point, what “big reaction”) your child is having, it helps to step back and identify the feeling. You might say it out loud to your child or you might just note it to yourself. Remind yourself that you have felt that way before too, and that you survived. Try to see the benefits – the other side, the lessons your child can learn – and monitor but don’t jump in. You can offer validation with a simple statement like, “I bet that really hurts” or maybe even your own anecdote, “I remember feeling kind of like that when…” If your child or teen is accepting, you can offer a hug or show of affection. Then step back again and this time let the situation unfold. Let some time pass. You can check in with your child, “how’s it going with the situation with Wendy?” and allow for some privacy – your child might just say, “fine.” Big feelings (and sometimes big reactions) are a part of growing up and are not necessarily the sign of something bad. If you’re not sure, or if you’re noticing a pattern of very intense reactions, it may help to meet with a therapist for you and your child to learn some tools to manage those feelings as they come.