In my last post, I talked about ways that we inadvertently stop children from expressing their feelings. Today, I want to talk about what happens when children learn that it is not okay to share or openly express their feelings. One of the things that happens is temper tantrums, as you will see shortly, but first a little background.
Imagine that children have this beautiful cup inside of them, I always see it as a silver chalice with the cup just below their hearts, where they store all of their hurts. Imagine that cup filling with droplets of anger, hurt, frustration, sadness, all of the emotions that children feel on any given day. That cup can only hold so much until it is going to spill over. As our children find themselves spending more time away from us, they may store their hurts more quickly, especially if they don’t feel safe expressing their feelings outside of their home and their safe place, you. If you have a very sensitive child, they are going to need to empty their hurt cup more often than other children.They are not doing this to make you made, to push your buttons or just because they can. There is no such thing as no reason to cry. We cannot know what children are feeling or what hurts they have stored, we can only love and support them in releasing the hurt.
Children learn to control their emotions, much like they learn to control their bladder. Take for example the little boy on the playground who goes down the slide, falls off the end and bumps his head as he goes. He stands up and looks around. If no one is watching, he shakes off the hurt and goes on with his play. But if even one person is watching, he may completely fall apart and cry hysterically. Sometimes a child will have a big cry over a small hurt just so they can empty their hurt cup. They do this naturally and if we pay attention, we learn to watch for the warning signs that a spillover is coming.
As adults, we already know that we tend to store our feelings until we have a safe place to express them or until they make us sick/sad/depressed, etc. Children do the same thing. If we invalidate a child’s feeling, she stops trusting feelings, which leads to a lifetime of low self-worth and poor self-esteem. If you say I can’t accept your feelings, your child hears I can’t accept you. Children desperately need us to accept them. Rather than risk rejection for expressing painful feelings, children learn to stop expressing their feelings.
Our children are smarter than we often give them credit for. They will find ways to empty their hurts, even though they may not understand what they are doing. Here are 3 ways that children try to empty their cup.
a. Control Behavior – Nail biting, hair twirling, chewing on clothes, hair, pencils, etc. When my son was in kindergarten, he would come home with his sleeves and the neck of his shirt soaking wet where he had been chewing on them all day. Yuck! But that was his coping mechanism for just learning to sit quietly all day, a very difficult task for any 6 year old boy.
b. Emotional Safety – This explains why your child can be a perfect angel all day at school and come home and completely fall apart. They have spent all day holding everything in. They see you, their safe haven, and they finally feel safe to let it all hang out. I know it can be very challenging to be on the receiving end of all of these emotions, but this is a necessary part of many children’s healthy emotional growth.
c. Temper Tantrums – Tantrums occur when there is no more room to store hurts, and a spillover happens. Our efforts to reason, comfort or fix are useless. A tantrum is the release of the accumulation of hurts we didn’t see. Tantrums are not misbehaviors or manipulaion. The most common trigger for a temper tantrum is disappointment or loss when you say no. Always validate the child’s feelings, “Wow, I can see that you are really sad, mad, etc. I will stay here with you while you cry.” Now if you are in public, which seems inevitable with toddlers and preschoolers, just scoop your child up and take them outside or to your car. Once the tantrum is over, your child will usually bounce right back to his/her happy self. If you stop the tantrum, know that it will just spill over later!
I could go on and on about this topic, but I will stop here. Just remember not to take your child’s release of feelings personally. Remember that you are the person they feel safest with. If you cannot listen, take a time out for you. And as always, the best parenting tool is to take lots of deep breaths to make sure you are centered, calm and able to deal with your child.
Happy parenting, Minette