“Let her cry. Let the tears fall down like rain. Let her sing if it eases all her pain. Let her go; let her walk right out on me, and if the sun comes up tomorrow, let her be.”
Let Her Cry by Hootie & the Blowfish
The song isn’t about children but is sung by someone with the right idea about respecting others’ boundaries and feelings. Someone who, perhaps, was brought up having theirs respected in the same way. Let’s take a look at what that could look like.
Children, especially those of tender age, are bundles of pure emotion. They don’t yet have the vocabulary or understanding of what they feel to be able to control any of what’s going on. They’ll tell it to you straight – no matter how your feelings suffer in the process.
It’s a blessing and curse but as much part of their life as toilet-training and getting them to not eat with their hands.
Letting a child freely feel and, more importantly, show what they’re feeling is vital for their emotional development. We cannot tell a child to stop feeling what they feel as much as we can ask ourselves to do so. We, the older and more capacitated adults, have the tools and knowledge to fake our way through all sorts of emotions – children don’t. Not until a certain age do they not. Not until we tell them what’s acceptable, they don’t.
But there’s a crucial difference in this issue: what we feel is one thing; what we show is another. What we should focus on with children after they get to an age where they understand this difference is precisely that. Telling them not to feel is pointless. Teaching them to express emotion differently is useful and builds them into a grounded, fair and balanced adulthood.
Supermarket. Trolley full. Your four-year-old spots some biscuits. And no, they can’t have them because dinner is soon.
And… it’s on.
A tantrum starts. Screaming? Kicking? Throwing themselves on the floor? All of the above?
Pretty sure we’ve all witnessed the untethering of a small child’s emotions, especially concerning a firm No.
So, what do you do? Pick the child up and place them in the shopping cart? Leave? Scream at them to stop? Tell them they’re embarrassing you? (good luck with that one – they have no idea of embarrassment – that’s a grown-up, socially and culturally construed thing).
Letting them tantrum the tantrum out is the best bet. Stand by them, make sure they can’t hurt themselves, smile at the gobsmacked strangers, and let the tantrum tire itself out. Let them feel and show what they’re feeling without judgment.
Later, you can chat with them and explore the situation in a calm and non-criticizing manner to help them grow. Were they angry? If so, they could try saying they’re mad next time instead of throwing themselves on the floor. Were they feeling sad? No problem with feeling sad. But the best way to show it is not by kicking and screaming into the pasta aisle. That must be made clear, and guiding alternatives must be offered.
Acknowledging their feelings is one thing; guiding them on how to show them is another.
We should strongly refrain from telling children what they can and can’t feel or prohibit them from showing that emotion before they have the tools and knowledge to do so.
It’s confusing and will make them feel inadequate as if their feelings and emotions are wrong, incorrect, or ill-timed. Doing so only teaches them to bottle up their feelings and lie. In worst-case scenarios, it could lead to extreme imbalances in which emotional control doesn’t exist.
We all know someone who flies off at the slightest thing or gets highly emotional over the smallest things. Some of them a very good at manipulating others, using a show of emotion to get what they want from our feelings. We parents also know that children, especially smaller ones, will use this strategy without a care in the world. But before you feel like you’re being duped, remember: they don’t know any better. That’s how they communicate for now. And, let’s be honest, we dish out our fair share of emotional sneakiness on them, too. “Mum will be sad if you don’t eat your vegetables.”
Holding your child responsible for your feelings (because that’s what they’ll take from that) is a great way to teach them to do the same to you.
“I want chocolate!”
“No, sorry. No more chocolate.”
“I don’t like you anymore!”
Ring any bells?
This is all very confusing and complex, especially if you look at how you express your emotions to your child and admit it has shaped and molded them into behaving the way they do. They soak up everything, take note of everything, forget nothing, and they’ll use it all against you in a second.
So, the next time you tell your child to stop crying, think about what that crying represents. The next time your child throws a tantrum over a biscuit, look beyond the biscuit and see that it’s just their way of showing you they’re frustrated at getting denied something they want (how do you react when they deny you something you want from them?). The next time your child shuts up and refuses to speak about something or goes off to sulk, take the opportunity to build communication tools with them. Draw emotions on paper, using colors for angry, sad, happy, hungry, tired, etc. Ask them to identify which one corresponds to what they’re feeling inside. Give them the words to express it. And keep at it until they realize that telling you they’re angry at not getting a biscuit is better and more productive than throwing a fit at the supermarket. When they do let on about how they’re feeling, take the opportunity to explain your stance and say it’s ok that you understand why they’re feeling that way. Acknowledge them. It’ll probably be enough to end a brewing tantrum, moving them on to the next attention-grabbing thing they find.
Our role as parents is not to tell our children what and how to feel what they feel. Instead, our role as parents is to guide our children to express those feelings healthily and productively. But first, ensure you’re leading by example and giving them the best foundations possible to copycat.
It’s not easy. Children will mirror us, and looking in that mirror can sometimes be painful. Seeing them act up and tracing that unseemly behavior back to our own can be quite a shock. No one prepares you for that.
Why does your child scream and shout their way into or out of an argument? Do they run off and slam a door? Do they insult you? Do they call you names? Do they play the victim?
The good news is that we can all learn to improve and strive for better ways to do things after we know what we’ve been doing wrong. There’s not much more we can ask of ourselves, is there? And there’s no excuse not to improve after we know we need to improve.
Don’t feel bad about any of this if it hits a little too close to home. It’s just the way of the world.
See how that didn’t work to turn your feelings off? The same goes for the tiny, emotion-packed humans.
And if the sun comes up tomorrow, let her be.
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