We, as adults, are often very uncomfortable with children (or anyone) expressing strong upset emotions. We judge the crying as naughty, manipulative, over the top or any number of other unhelpful interpretations. We feel a need to fix or stop the crying. Yet crying is a natural, healthy way of expressing emotional discomfort and of processing important though difficult feelings until they are resolved.
Scanning parenting articles on the internet recently, I came across one which referred to the old therapeutic analogy of emotions as tunnels, through which we as trains need to pass in order to reach the light at the other end. Our attempts to curtail an upset child’s sobbing is analogous to stopping the train half-way through the tunnel, or trying to turn it back the way it came.
As adults, we have many means to stifle unpleasant emotions in ourselves, such as using denial or various forms of distraction. When it’s a child in the tunnel we use distracting, cajoling, reasoning, bargaining or bullying to stop the process. Either way the process is not completed and the light (and the learning) is not attained.
So how do we support our children through their emotions so they emerge free at the other end? Talking to them when they are engaging in an intense bout of crying will not help them, and it is bound to be about the adult’s needs, not the child’s. Furthermore, when feelings are intense, touching can be intrusive and distracting for some children. On the other hand, we should not abandon them or put them in “time out”, thus leaving them all alone in a dark and potentially scary place.
Our job as parents is to stand (or sit) by the child as they work their way through the tunnel; to watch and to listen, difficult as that may be. Our job is to “read” our child’s energy, and when they have released the first intensity of feeling, we might reach out to gently stroke an arm or rub a heaving little back. When the crying subsides it’s okay to speak, but not to analyse, preach or seek explanation for the episode. We need to simply find out what the child needs right now. It may be a cuddle, a drink of water or help to manage whatever their disaster is.
Do this and your child will have “cried it out” with your loving support right at hand. They will feel released and relieved as they have completed their emotional process. They are out of that particular tunnel and will be able to move forward without having to drag the baggage of stifled emotions into the next phase of their journey.
Terry Healy, Support Worker, Homebuilders