Taking care of difficult feelings. That was the title of the chapter we discussed last week in the Raising Good Humans book clubs on Monday and Tuesday. Days ago…I’m supposed to be moving to Listening to Heal and Help, and yet that other theme of dealing with difficult feelings has kind of followed me all week. It showed up in the conversations I had with parents, in no less than three different podcasts I listened to (to be fair, they were all Brené Brown podcasts, and that’s pretty much her bread and butter), and even in the resiliency webinar I listened to this afternoon…which really surprised me: I thought that the webinar on resiliency, offered by the Dali Lama Center, would be about mindfulness and meditation. Nope…it all came back to the same theme of taking care of difficult emotions (what does that tell you about resiliency, hmm?).
As a parent, I’m sure you’re very familiar with difficult feelings: your children’s and your own! Though it may be helpful to remind yourself that there’s a reason children tend to be more volatile: as Clarke-Fields reminds us, “the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until children are in their early twenties, [so] they are more prone to becoming flooded by strong emotions“ (p. 83). That may be cold comfort when your child is a puddle, but the other side of that coin is the window of unbridled joy they can also fall into, no?
Though let me slow down here…I don’t want to be too quick to turn to the sunny side. You see, taking care of difficult feelings does not mean dismissing them, diminishing them, or spinning them… though that may be how you were raised, and certainly it’s a big part of our culture, is it not? How many times have you heard “don’t be so negative?” “Ugh, that’s depressing, let’s change the topic.” “That’s true, but what are you grateful for today?” In Brené’s podcast, she discussed “toxic positivity” with author Susan David and the propensity many of have ingrained within us to help others through difficult times by helping them look to the bright side. But what that actually does is say to the other person ‘my comfort is more important than your reality.’ Ouch. But that’s true…it says “hurry up and stop feeling bad!”
I felt that sting recently myself, in fact. I reached out to a friend to vent about a recent unpleasant experience with a doctor. Their reply? “Yes, but you got the treatment you needed, right? So, Yay!” Yes, ‘yay’…but I was left feeling unseen, unheard, and maybe a little ungrateful. “Don’t have those feelings. They make me uncomfortable. You are wrong for having those feelings” (p. 72). And you know what, it made me so uncomfortable, it made me start to edit myself when I told the story again, leading with “I got this treatment I’ve been needing, which is great, but…”
And here’s the thing: as Dr. David said in her conversation with Brené, it didn’t make me feel stronger or more powerful to lead with the positive, it actually makes me more fragile: I’m living in the world, not as it is, but as I wish it to be.” And sure, I wish I’d had a glorious experience and the doctor had been warmer, kinder, and more attentive, but she wasn’t. And I’m allowed to be disturbed by that. I’m allowed to have uncomfortable feelings… we all have difficult thoughts, emotions, and stories. And no, we shouldn’t wallow in them, but use them, instead, as signposts to direct our attention to something that needs to change. Only when we deal with the world as it really is, can we problem-solve and make changes.
You may be wondering what this has to do with parenting.
The “don’t have those feelings” quotation I referenced above brought me right back to Magda’s feelings about saying “you’re okay” to a crying child. She said that what that says to the child is don’t dare to feel uncomfortable. But the child feels uncomfortable. So, they learn, right from the very beginning, to start to bottle those feelings…and you know what happens to things that are bottled: eventually, they explode. Instead, I encourage you to allow your child to feel their feelings…like the Going on a Bear Hunt song, “the only way out of our difficult feelings is throooooough” (p. 77). It was so interesting to me that, during the resiliency webinar I mentioned, the advice a teen therapist gave to parents to help their kids as they navigate their difficult feelings* around the pandemic was to simply sit with them in their distress. Perhaps to reflect back what you hear them saying, and to resist the temptation to say “But…it’s going to be okay, etc.” She emphasized that simply sitting with them and staying with them emotionally helped their children move through their distress more quickly. And that’s the same thing I tell parents to do with tantruming toddlers. That’s what we all need…someone to sit with us and see us.
That webinar also told me there are two critical areas for protecting brain development and mental health (well, actually, between the 3 therapists, they listed between 2 and 9, but for now I’m just going to focus on two). One: parents seeing and hearing their children, being connected. Two: taking care of ourselves. I know, I know…I can see your eyes getting ready to skim over this section. You’ve heard me say it a zillion times: you can’t take care of your child unless you’re taking care of yourself. But listen to this: you are taking care of your child by taking care of yourself.
She told the story of coming home from a book tour and fighting with herself because she knew she “should” go to her son’s swim meet, but she just needed some alone time. She eventually gave into that need, apologizing/explaining to her son later. The next day he gave her his birthday wish list (he was turning 12). Number one on the list? “More alone time.” He told her: I didn’t know I was allowed to ask for that. People: your children do not need you to save them. They need to watch you saving yourself.
There is more I want to say on this, but like Brené did with her discussion on toxic positivity, I’m going to make this a two parter.
*By the way, teens and young adults are having the worst time of it these days: between missing out on major milestones, getting stymied in a time when they should be spreading their wings and finding more independence and socialization… and are therefore the least resilient…if you have a teen in your life, lean in.
5. Seeing to the Heart
Some behavior in your children will seem “good” to you.
Other behavior will seem unequivocally “bad.”
Notice both in your children
without being overly impressed by one
nor overly dismayed by the other.
In doing so you will be imitating the Tao
which sees our behavior as a mask,
and sees immediately beneath it
to the good within our heart.
Above all, do not attack your child’s behavior
and attempt to change it
by endless talking and scolding.
Stay at your center and look beneath the behavior
to the heart of the child.
There you will find only good.
When you see the heart
you will know what to do.
Of course some behavior is dangerous to the child and to others.
Express your concern with the behavior.
Do not attack the child.
Consider now a particular behavior that concerns you.
Meditate carefully and see through
to the heart of your child.
What does it tell you?