Helping Kids Struggle Productively With Difficult Emotions

Kids thrive when they learn to live with, not eradicate, negative emotions.

Posted Jun 12, 2020

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As a parent and psychologist, I think constantly about the daily emotional challenges children face in 2020. We are enduring profound losses of life, economic security, social connections, educational aspirations, and psychological well-being due to the global pandemic. Following the murder of George Floyd by police, much-needed society-wide dialogues are growing and must serve to spur action against institutional racism and police brutality. But many of us feel ill-equipped to discuss our difficult world with our children.

Our first instinct is often to sweep difficult feelings under the rug, to keep calm and carry on. We assess our children’s well-being by how well they are able to keep smiling and stay productive. Perhaps good feelings will drive away the bad. Despite our best intentions, however, this approach rarely works and may even serve to conceal distress and confusion.

This instinct is also born from that false belief that being psychologically healthy means feeling happy almost all of the time. Yet, what psychological science shows again and again is that being "sane" means having the capacity to love and create, to have the flexibility to change our emotions depending on the situation, and to endure and gain wisdom from our painful emotions. Psychological well-being isn’t a state we achieve, it is something we work towards, building strength and resilience, like physical fitness.

So, there is another approach, one that allows us to help our children—and ourselves—engage with and build strategies to cope with difficult emotions. Even for those of us facing true hardship, where emotional support will not fix what is broken, these strategies can build resilience to face what lies ahead.

Explore emotions with curiosity, not judgment. In the face of painful emotions, of course we want to numb those feelings. Our kids might throw themselves into video games or books, over-eat, or even turn to alcohol or drugs. But this has a boomerang effect on our kids. It’s as if while numbing themselves, their feelings are in the other room doing a full-body workout, getting pumped up and stronger than ever before. The alternative to numbing is a two-part process—first, openly exploring and identifying emotions, and second, deciding to feel those emotions without judgment. Suspending judgment is key, because our feelings about our feelings are the crux of what gets us tied in emotional knots—"It’s not OK to be jealous; it’s weak to feel sad; it’s unkind to be angry, etc." When we as parents listen to and accept our children’s sadness, fear, guilt, or rage—without judging or fixing, even if we don’t think they should be feeling that way—we give our children permission to really feel them. This is the first step towards learning how to work with emotions. When my 8-year-old daughter became painfully afraid of bugs after we started sheltering in place, I gave my "fearless" girl a hard time. Only when I stopped judging her and accepted her feelings did I realize that she was afraid of bugs because, as she said, they are "tiny things that can get into your body and make you sick.” It shouldn’t have taken a degree in psychology to see how similar that feels to the devastating and deadly threat facing our world, the coronavirus.  

Ask what the emotion is communicating. Fear, anxiety, sadness, and other negative emotions signal that something is not right and, more often than not, that there is an opportunity for growth. Listening to our difficult emotions leads us down productive, illuminating paths. Depressed and anxious feelings in our children might indicate that their lives are out of balance, or that they need to step away from screens or social media a little more. These feelings might also communicate that we need to dig deeper to investigate why they seem irritated all the time, or why nothing interests them anymore. A month into shelter-in-place, my 11-year-old son seemed listless, emotionally flat, and uninterested in activities he used to love. He seemed to be feeling something but was pushing it down. When we sat with him and invited him to explore his emotions, he rebuffed us at first. After several conversations, though, he burst into tears and admitted that since one of his teachers died, he feared that a family member might die, too. Although painful to admit, he felt a huge sense of relief and we were able to help him cope with those troubling but natural feelings.

Teach that negative emotions don't make us fragile. One of the biggest barriers to exploring and listening to our difficult emotions is the belief that emotions like sadness and fear make us fragile. Quite the opposite is true. Emotions that we acknowledge and bear almost always make us stronger. Conversely, emotions that are suppressed eat away at us and weaken our resilience. The concept of anti-fragility, described beautifully by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2012 book, describes this perfectly. While resilience and robustness are qualities that allow us to resist and bounce back from stressors and challenges, antifragility is the quality of growing stronger because of challenge. The immune system is anti-fragile because without exposure to germs and pathogens, we cannot mount a strong immune response—we become the boy or girl in the bubble. Systems that are antifragile become rigid, weak, and inefficient when nothing challenges them or pushes them to respond with intensity. Bones and muscles are antifragile. Human emotions are antifragile, too, because humans thrive on emotional challenges. We become better when we have to cope with and accommodate disorder and unpredictability. We grow emotionally stronger only when we have the opportunity to make mistakes and overcome them.

So, if we decide that our children’s emotional challenges should be avoided instead of faced, they are more likely to become emotionally brittle and rigid, and when a strong wind blows … they can break. Indeed, a study coming out of the Yale Child Study Center showed that treating parents of anxious children is as effective as treating the children themselves when parents were taught to re-evaluate their child’s fragility and stop accommodating. They learned to tell their anxious child who was avoiding school, “I know you feel upset right now but you’ll be all right.” And send them to school anyway.

Give facts in developmentally appropriate ways. Our children’s questions should guide us—give enough information to answer questions, but don’t volunteer the unnecessary. It’s all too easy to talk out loud as a way to problem-solve or work through our own fears and worries, but it’s usually not helpful to have our children be that sounding board. It’s equally important not to hide information. Children can almost always sense when adults are afraid to tell them something, and know what it means when the news gets snapped off when they enter the room. Whether it’s the pandemic or racism and police brutality, facts can only empower them to cope. Hiding facts also conveys fear, whereas calm concern conveys that we acknowledge that this is challenging but we have resources to cope with it even if we don’t have all the answers now.

Become a partner and empower. It's OK as a parent to not know everything. Sitting down with our kids, saying, “This is all new to me, too, and I don’t have all the solutions, but I know we can figure it out together” empowers kids by giving them a sense of competence and acknowledges that they are part of solutions. We might, however, be ready to problem-solve before our kids are. Offer to help problem-solve, but be willing to hear "no, not yet." Be aware that we sometimes jump to problem-solving as a way of avoiding uncomfortable feelings of worry and helplessness. When we do problem-solve, focus on identifying what we can’t and can control, and focus on problem-solving around those things that can change and accepting what can’t.

Our opportunity as parents in these heartbreaking times is to help our children accept and engage the full range of their emotions, and teach them that their ability to learn from them, survive, and thrive as a result is what makes us truly human. We may fear that weathering the storm of emotions could endanger them, but they will instead become stronger as a result.