Image appears flickr courtesy creative commons by memekode
Have you ever thought about the way we soothe our children? Not just babies, but children. There's a lot of talk dedicated to parent-soothing vs. self soothing behavior, how to react to tantrums, time outs vs. time ins, but what actually happens when a crying kid meets up with a group of grown ups? The soothing is very different in the moment than it is in discussion. There's a lot of "food" and "treat" soothing. Doctors give lollipops and stickers to soothe children who have been scared at their appointments. I found out last year when my son had to go through a lot of testing, that hospitals have a whole stock pile of "flashy" toys ready to be employed when a child needs to be soothed into sitting still for an uncomfortable or strange test. Babysitters (and sometimes parents) sometimes use the t.v. to distract kids who are upset by a loved one's exit. There's also "self-soothing" we attempt to teach children out of our own frustration. Sometimes when a child seems to need a lot of reassurance during a day, care givers try to soothe their child by walking away from the situation and not giving it any more "energy." We reason that if we don't hold our children every time they cry, maybe they'll stop crying so much. (It doesn't usually work, but somehow it does sometimes seem worth the try.) It's okay if you do these things sometimes (I do, too). The problem is if these attempts to soothe children become our main lines of defense.
What are the long term consequences of teaching kids to cope with strong emotions with food, t.v., and flashy toys? Will they do the same things for themselves when they get old enough to? If that were the case, we might be looking at a nation filled with obesity, bankruptcy, and rapid consumerism because everyone would be attempting to address their emotions with food and things. What about if children who were left to cry on their own too much and were told not to bother others emotionally? Would they grow up to battle depression and have trouble reaching out for help? Is it just me or is this picture starting to resemble a world that we are all uncomfortably familiar with?
I want to say up front, that I do not in any way think that this is just a parent issue. I don't blame the parenting of yesteryear for the issues we have today. I'm just noticing that something society wide does not seem to be working well when it comes to the way we treat strong emotions (whether it's anger, fear, or sadness). As a woman who is obese, has had recurrent bouts of depression, and worked for four years with teens who struggled with emotional disturbances, I intimately know the struggle to appropriately deal with emotions. It has taken me years to develop better tools for both myself and for teaching others, so I know that there is no pat way to deal with these issues.
I want my son to have better tools earlier than I do from the very beginning. One of the ways I intend to help him develop those tools is to teach him that the proper response to one's strong emotions is not to hold it in, but to turn to others. At this juncture, it is more uncomfortable for me to teach this lesson than it is for him to learn it. There is something extremely unsettling about staying present for such profound anger and tears as only a toddler can conjure. Right now, my son does not feel any shame for his emotions and as much as I want it to stay that way for him, it is something I struggle with because I do feel shame for my emotions. Dr. Lawrence Cohen talks about this struggle many parents have in his book Playful Parenting (a book I highly recommend for some very useful advice about emotionally connecting with your children beyond the baby bonding of infancy). He writes: "We feel as if we are being tortured because the release of raw emotion is so intense that it's harder for us to keep our own . . . feelings buried inside." No wonder a child crying creates in us stuch a strong desire to either get away or get the child to stop crying immediately!
However difficult it may be for us emotionally, it is worth it to tough it out and stay present emotionally for our children. I recognize that this is not always possible and perhaps not desirable to stay with our children while they work through every emotion. However, when our children are really upset, even if it doesn't seem like they should be given the impetus of their crying (frustration over not getting their favorite food at dinner for example), it's important that we try to listen to their emotions and comfort them. This is not the same thing as "giving in" to their every whim or giving them everything they think they want to assuage their crying. This is letting them know that we recognize that they are upset and we will comfort them and when they are ready, we will talk to them about it. If they are too young to be verbal or cognizant of their feelings on their own, we can try to give them words to describe what they might be feeling (or what we would be feeling in their place.) For more information on how you might do that see Julian's post on "Time In's"
It may be time consuming and harder for us to let children cry and work through their emotions, but it is also more rewarding for them later on. It is my hope that if I commit myself to trying to do this as much as possible for my son, than instead of turning to food, flashy toys or sublimating his emotions as an adolescent and adult, he will instead turn to people he trusts when he needs help and will deal with his emotions in a healthy way. As Cohen writes in Playful Parenting, "Healthy emotional expression requires a close connection. We can cry alone, but it is so much more healing to cry on someone's shoulder."