February 23, 2016

TrishBits #20: It’s OK to Let People Feel Bad. It Can Even Help.

Stop denying feelings – yours and your kids’ and co-workers’ – because it doesn’t help. At all.

Stop denying feelings – yours and your kids’ and co-workers’ – because it doesn’t help. At all.

I saw this happen at the grocery store last week: A harried-looking mom in a business suit was pushing a cart past the deli bar at 5:00 pm with a preschooler in tow. The little guy walked past a tantalizing display of bubble gum packaged in little plastic toys.

“Mom,” he wailed. “I want one of those!!” Mom’s reply, “No, you don’t. You don’t want all that sugar and that cheap toy will break in no time. Haven’t we talked about this? You can’t want everything you see in the store. Now, hurry up!!!” The child got stormy-faced. So did the mom. As I turned down the next aisle, I heard a wail rise out of that little kid. As shrill as a siren.

Here’s what I have to say about all that:

  • Boy, do I feel for that Mom. Been there. Done that. Didn’t work. And, I vividly remember the decision to NEVER take a child to the grocery story after 2 pm….
  • That little kid will be just fine. I’m not worried about him. I do empathize, but I’m not worried. Kids don’t get what they want all the blessed time…. And, he seemed to be fully capable of expressing himself.
  • I’m more concerned for the mom, who will likely berate herself for being impatient and who doesn’t have enough time or help because she’s in the grocery store at 5 pm.

One suggestion for all parents: By all means, make the tough decisions and say, “No.” But, lay off trying to convince your kiddo that he or she shouldn’t want something, shouldn’t be upset, should take ‘NO’ with grace, and should agree with you that sugar is vile.

How often do you hear people say these similar things?

“You didn’t really want a friend who treated you like that.”
“You don’t have any right to be mad at the boss; it’s your fault that you missed the deadline.”
“Don’t feel sad!”
“No, you can’t be hungry. We just ate an hour ago.”

Here’s what the research tells us: Denying feelings doesn’t work, with kids or adults. It actually makes the person entrench in the feeling, in a kind of ‘well, I’ll just show you’ way. What does help? Just labeling those feelings. No judgment. No giving in to unreasonable demands. No pretending that you agree. Just acknowledge and name the feeling. It lowers the brain activity in the amygdala, funnels energy to the problem-solving part of the brain, and activates mirror neurons in both people so that they feel a bit more sympathetic toward each other.

So, this mom might try saying, “No, Buddy. I know – they look so great. You must really be tired and hungry after such a long day. I want to hear all about your day. Climb up in the cart and tell me about it while we wait in line.”

Mom says this while rushing past the bubble gum….

He may still wail. He may never get to go to the grocery store after daycare again. But, practiced over time, this technique solidifies relationships, develops emotional intelligence, and keeps the boundaries clean.

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