What to do when you hear ‘Mummy, I’m sad.’
It’s a fact that it is difficult for children to deal with their emotions, starting with recognizing them. Recently, my five-year-old has started to be mean to one of his friends in the neighbourhood and I became concerned. A bit of research revealed this is normal behaviour at his age and, while it needs to be addressed, it is a result of the inability of children to recognize and manage their feelings. In my son’s case, and after a lot of questioning and talking, he found he needed to come in the house and play by himself for a while, and his friend kept following him all the time. At five, he wasn’t able to express the need to relax for a while. But what happens when your kid comes over and says they are [insert feeling here]? Most of the time, they don’t even know why. What to do when your kids are sad?
I had to idea to write this blog today because, due to the recent news around Spain and Covid-19, my kids are not going to be able to spend the summer with my parents. My eldest daughter, who just turned 8, was particularly looking forward to it, so I was bracing myself to give her the news.
What to do when your kids are sad?
My daughter can be quite sensitive. For example, yesterday, I went to get them down the street from their friends’ house and it started pouring. She left first and I was waiting for my son to find his shoes. Ten minutes go by and she is back at their friends’ house, where I am still waiting for my son, drenched, and crying quite desperately. She was worried because I didn’t follow her. Now, we only live a few doors apart and my husband was home, so there was no reason for her to be concerned. Yet, she ran home, saw I wasn’t behind, and ran back to me under heavy rain.
Meanwhile, my son walked back at a leisurely pace. As you do.
Still, it can be quite distressing to have your child in front of you, crying their eyes out, and not be able to help them. But can you even help them? When your kids are sad, it’s easy to want to make them stop. Give them candy or put something on TV, distract them, whatever, as long as they stop making that terrible face.
But is there a use for sadness? Does it participate in their development?
Well, it does.
Part of being able to manage your emotions is recognizing them, but that’s very hard to do when you have never been given the chance to feel those emotions. If we constantly stop our children from feeling sad, or frustrated, or angry, they will struggle to figure out what it is they are feeling in the future.
So what to do when your kids are sad? First, let them be sad.
We tend to say things like ‘you will be okay,’ which is mostly true, but it is also dismissive. Children might think you don’t care when you say that. Things like ‘it will pass,’ are also true, but are focusing their attention on the future, rather than explore their current feeling.
By encouraging kids to focus on when the feeling will pass, we might also make them believe there is something wrong with being sad. It’s an old belief that, to be strong, you can’t cry, you have to be able to overcome your fears, and other feelings traditionally thought of as weak.
And then they wonder why there are so many issues with mental health in our generation.
Is it so bad to be sad?
The truth is, feeling your feelings is good. Even without having a professional degree in the subject, it is easy to recognize this fact, because there is proof. And it’s this: we looooove movies. We love movies that makes us laugh, and are exciting, and fill us with warm cosy feelings.
But we also love movies that make us sad. Ask Pixar. Their best movies start with the saddest, most heartbreaking montages (I’m looking at you Up, and Finding Nemo.) The Green Mile, The Fault in our Stars, Me before You, you name them, we love them, and we love having that box of tissues at the ready (find more of the greatest sad movies here).
As humans, we love feeling emotions, but only for other people, possibly fictional ones. Books, movies, comics… music even. So, how come we don’t want to feel them ourselves?
Could it be, in part, because we have been raised in the belief that feeling is weak?
Feeling, including sadness, is part of life. It might help, sometimes, to focus on the better times to come, when you are going through a rough time, but you are missing out on life, almost wishing it away. Instead of doing this, let your kids live, understand, and embrace their emotions. Yes, sadness will pass, but it doesn’t mean they won’t learn anything from what they are feeling right now. For some help with that, they can read any of these great books about feelings and mental health.
Incidentally, and if anybody was wondering, my daughter didn’t react to the bad news about her holidays like I expected. When I told her they couldn’t go, she made a theatre-worthy sad face, and then said: ‘okay, but can I go to my friend’s house now?’
I worried for nothing.
Keep safe and keep reading!