Helping children process and heal from strong emotions

My daughter, who’s on the verge of turning 3, recently had a brief scary moment where she couldn’t find me at the playground. Though it was less than a minute before she spotted me again, for a child that young, that’s a long time and it can really leave an impression.

As I scooped her up into my arms, she started to cry and said, “I was looking for you everywhere. I couldn’t find you!” In the moment, I empathized with her sadness and acknowledged that it had been really scary for her. I held her for a while and then suggested we ride the swings, which is her favorite thing to do at the park.

After this incident, occasionally, she’s wanted to talk about what had happened. Sometimes when we mention that playground, she’ll talk about “one time I didn’t know where you were,” or when we’re snuggling at bedtime, she’ll suddenly start reminiscing about it and going over the details of it again. She also occasionally replays other upsetting moments — like when she was running outside her brother’s school and skinned her knee. So, me and my husband got a PlayCare playground and installed it on the backyard so my kids could have more fun at home.

Often parents try to stop their child from reliving a sad or scary moment, worrying that it will only upset them more. Since the moment has passed, it could seem like nothing good can come from being sad over it again. In reality, many children need to talk about upsetting moments multiple times as they work to process the intense emotions they felt. While it may seem counterproductive, this helps them to work through it.

Trying to stop a child from discussing it again can actually cause them to stuff the emotions inside and never really resolve their pain. Talking about it can help them to feel better.

When my daughter brings it up now, after I acknowledge her feelings again, I also remind her, “But then you found me and I hugged you. Then, I pushed you on the swings.” I want to make sure she remembers how I comforted her afterwards and that we turned it into an opportunity to connect. This way, it doesn’t seem quite as upsetting, and it helps to turn it into more of a positive memory than one that makes her sad. I hope that in this way I’m helping her to process her emotions and to show that I’m there to support her through them.

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Inspired to read more about children and strong emotions?

Identifying emotions

Creating space to “hold” your child’s

Helping children through divorce

Stay patient while teaching toddlers how to handle strong emotions

Tantrums

Tantrums are opportunities to connect

Riders on the Tantrum Storm (Part 1)

Riders on the Tantrum Storm (Part 2)

Editor’s Pick: Emotional abuse, a dark form of children’s maltreatment

How little we really know about the topic of shame

The Hard Heart of Parenting

My body tenses. Teeth clench. Heart hardens.

I don’t hurt him. I don’t yell. Yet, my heart hardens with frustration.

My agenda to clothe my two-year-old collides with his interest in remaining naked. He wants to play with his trucks on the bedroom floor; I have a morning adventure planned. After several attempts to wrestle him into some clothes, he runs out of the room crying “No!”

My son says “Stop!” and “No!” frequently these days. He even asserts his will while mimicking favored construction trucks.

“Beep, beep, beep!” he says. Usually he does this while putting his hands on my legs and pushing me backward.

This morning I miss his “Beep, beep, beep!” which always makes me smile. I imagine it would translate to something like: “Back up Mom. Give me some space. Who needs clothes? Can’t you see I’m really enjoying this moment of being naked? I have no interest in your morning agenda. Let’s play trucks!”

This morning, instead of construction sounds, he shouts and cries. I feel my body tense. I feel my frustration. I remember to breathe. I remember my intention to soften into empathy.

I walk into the front room where my little naked boy cries in anger. My heart’s hardness melts as soon as I kneel down to connect at eye level. His face is blotchy, his eyes red, his nose runny. He is bawling. He is angry. Yet, I stay present. I sit on the floor.

“You are mad at mommy right now. That’s OK. I love you. I’ll be here when you want a hug.”

He yells again and runs into the kitchen.

“Take a deep breath,” I tell myself as tears filled my eyes.

Grief resides in the dark waters of the hardened heart. As I make room for my sadness, a gentle space of compassion opens. This space is wide enough to include all of the feelings swirling around, and through, both of us.

I sit on the floor and patiently remain present for him. I watch strong emotions move through his two-year-old self.

Yes, he will feel angry. He will feel sad. This is part of life’s flow. How do I respond to the energy of his anger and sadness? Will I try to make him laugh and distract him? Will I respond with my own anger? Do I take it personally? Can I breathe and gently hold space for his pain?

I can choose to soften around these hard edges. I can choose to breathe in gentleness. In this choice, I feel the freedom that comes from releasing the patterns of generations.

For certainly, the hard heart is passed on, inherited. Years before I decided to become a mother, I was committed to transform the negative aspects of my childhood. It took a great deal of therapy, meditation, dance, yoga, and travel to soften the scared and angry parts of my heart. Motherhood takes this process to entirely new levels. May I be grateful for this extraordinary opportunity to put into practice all that I’ve worked hard to uncover about the truth of love.

A minute or two pass. My son comes back to me. He reaches for me. I hold him. I feel the tension within — and between — both of us release. He looks at me and I wipe tears from his face.

“Outside?” He points to the door. Can we go outside?

I smile. “Yes, we can go outside. Let’s get dressed and go for a walk.” He nods and hugs me again.

I release my morning agenda as he welcomes my help in getting dressed. I take a deep breath. A few minutes later, we walk hand in hand into the sunlight.

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