A toddler is crying. Maybe the crying is inspired by a scraped knee, maybe another child is playing with the only desirable toy. The frantic adult is offering things to distract the child left and right: a blue cup, a green cup, some crackers, a set of keys. Amidst the chaos few phrases seem to rise to the surface again and again, “it’s okay”, “ oh, don’t cry.”
Well, of course the adult is frantically trying to mend the child's distress. That’s their job! Right?..... Right?!
Among the many roles adults play in the lives of children 'emotion extinguisher' is one that I have come to challenge. When adults deal with young children’s emotional experience by trying to make it stop or distract them away from it, children learn a few lessons about themselves and their caregivers. Janet Lansbury writes, "Smiling, laughing, tickling, or telling children they’re okay when they cry might seem more benevolent than reacting angrily or telling them to be quiet, but the message is the same: You shouldn’t be upset. Your feelings aren’t valid or acceptable".
When adults consistently attempt to distract children out of their discomfort they learn distraction as a primary way of way of dealing with difficult emotions. While distracting oneself from difficult emotions is a valuable tool, when overly used it can prevent people from feeling the depths of their emotions and making decisions that support their emotional experience. A healthy relationship to emotions includes learning how to express them appropriately, asking for changes to be made in relationships, and making choices to support emotions. When distraction is used with an upset child, an opportunity for more complex learning about emotional regulation is lost. They miss the opportunity to practice expressing their emotions with words and asking for what they need. They miss the opportunity to problem solve. They miss out on the opportunity to honor themselves and connect deeply with others. They miss the opportunity to learn effective emotional skills they will need to calm themselves as they grow into adulthood.
When children are upset they need adults to respond to them in calm and confident manner. They need to know their emotions are felt, understood, and valued. I think adults attempt to distract children from difficult emotions because we are uncomfortable their pain or we are worried that they are going to behave in ways that are inappropriate socially (disruptive crying or hitting). We need to find more compassionate and supportive ways to help children behave appropriately, while still giving them the message that all their emotions are valuable and respected.
This is not easy. I have been practicing this with children for years and still stumble. I have found that my acceptance of my own emotions, has deepened my ability to support emotions in children. For ideas on how to practice supporting difficult emotions see this post: Calm in the Storm.
"Together we will cry and face fear and grief. I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it." Brené Brown
Brene Brown, The wholehearted parenting manifesto.
Janet Lansbury, The happiest kids don't have to smile.