The other morning, my 2-year-old daughter ate about half of her slice of French toast before carefully removing the remaining bite-sized pieces, placing them on the table, and tilting her plate so she could lick off the extra syrup. She then looked at me and said, “More syrup Mommy!”
My first thought: You’ve got to be kidding me, girl!
I told her that I was fine with her licking the plate if she was done, but that I couldn’t really justify giving her a bunch more straight maple syrup to consume. I put a tiny drop more on her plate and said, “That’s it, sweetheart. If you don’t want the rest of your French toast, it’s OK, but no more syrup.
She, of course, still asked for more. And I said no. And she melted down, because she’s 2.
And before I could do anything else, my 4-year-old son (who was crushing his own plate of French toast) got out of his seat, went to her, and held her.
💟 He didn’t ask WHY she was making such a huge deal.
💟 He didn’t demand that she justify why she was crying.
💟 He didn’t tell her that she was being ridiculous.
He just gave her a nice hug. And before long she stopped crying, let me wipe her face and hands, and went to the other room to play.
This warmed my heart on so many levels, but my therapist self could not help but appreciate my son’s willingness to meet his sister right where she was. He let her be sad, offered comfort, and she was able to process the feeling and move on.
Very often, our response to negative emotion (in ourselves and others) is either:
💬 to try to make it disappear too quickly by minimizing it or pushing it away,
💬 to judge it by arguing about whether it’s OK to have the feeling in the first place; wondering whether the feeling is “justified” or not; labeling it somehow (stupid, pointless, irrational)
Emotions are not good or bad, they just are, and they do not always have the underpinning of perfect logic and reason. They operate on another plane a lot of the time, informed by our past experiences, current vulnerabilities (maybe we’re tired, hungry, not feeling well physically), the story we’re telling ourselves about what’s happening (our perspective), etc.
It’s really good to practice allowing yourself or a loved one to have a little while to experience a tough feeling without questioning it or trying to make it go away. Opening up space for negative emotion helps us build our muscle for tolerating and accepting that sadness, disappointment, anxiety, anger and pain are a normal part of life. When you try to make bad feelings disappear too quickly, you’re sending the message (to yourself or your loved one) that those feelings are intolerable or not OK.
When it comes to sitting with loved ones, validating emotions is an important part of relationship building. To your partner or teen, you may say, “I can see that you’re sad,” or, “You seem stressed,” and then wait. Don’t rush into problem-solving mode. Find out whether they want to talk more or be alone. To your young child, you may say, “You’re sad right now. You’re sad that you can’t have what you want, and I get that.” This helps the child a) learn the names of feelings and b) possibly avoid escalating further — because there’s no need to convince you of how she’s feeling or why.
If you’re the one experiencing negative emotion, naming the feeling and then noticing what specific physical sensations and thoughts come up along with that feeling is an important way to build your awareness and tolerance of negative emotion. Sometimes, just giving the feeling some air time allows it to pass more quickly than if you’d shoved it aside 💜
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