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The Right to be Unhappy

by on May.13, 2012, under Behavior, Child development, Communication, Expectations, Parent modeling, Parenting, Toddlers

“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” Every kid knows that insipid song.  It scrolls through a palette of feelings, “If you’re sad…If you’re angry…” always pointing to the refrain “but if you’re happy and you know it, shout hooray!” as if that’s the right way to be. I’m not so sure.

What about all the other feelings, the big feelings–sadness, anger, fear, frustration, loneliness, to name a few– which fall under the umbrella of “unhappy?”  What is the child supposed to do with those feelings and where do they fit in?  Unhappiness, right along with happiness, is a normal part of the human condition. Yet, a child’s unhappiness is often difficult, if not downright painful, for a parent to endure. Why is that?  What does the child’s unhappiness stir up in the parent?

The sinew that connects parent to child–the invisible string–is so strong that a mom feels her child’s discontent. Often it goes beyond normal empathy. His unhappiness can awaken her own unhappiness.Her own less-than-happy childhood memories might surface, difficult feelings that were unrecognized or unexpressed from way back when. Perhaps the dad feels less than competent, even a failure, assuming it is his job to keep his child happy. It is unbearable and so he fixes the feelings, making it all better for them both. Shout hooray, as the song demands.

The stresses of life make a child’s unhappiness hard for parents to stomach.  And, yes, sometimes it is expedient to fix the cause of the unhappiness. Mom doesn’t have time or patience to tolerate her child’s journey through the negative feeling.  Let me fix that. Hurry up and bring it here, and stop fussing.

Sometimes the parent resents the intrusion of unhappiness on what little time they have together. Just give him the candy. I don’t want our time together spent fighting.

The message in all these cases remains the same:  you’re supposed to be happy…all the time.

No one is happy all the time. Most are happy sometimes. Everyone gets irritated, lonely, grouchy and all the rest. And sometimes people are fine.  Nothing special, just plain fine. Through the parent’s reactions to his feelings, the child grows to believe that those other feelings aren’t okay; he should be happy.  That is the desired norm.

Emotional literacy is one of the realms of development that must be woven into growing up. Children need to learn to recognize, name, access, and live with myriad feelings, including the strong ones, all of which are healthy and normal.  When the parent rushes to “fix it,” the child learns not only that a feeling needs fixing but that it’s her parent who has to make it all better. Rescuing the child from his own big feeling sabotages his growing ability to tolerate and swim through it. His emotional literacy is stunted.

In reality, no one can really make someone else feel happy — or unhappy. People regulate their own feelings. Others help by offering ways to express, tolerate, and even tame a strong feeling, but each of us is in charge of our own emotions.

To help your child recognize and tolerate all his feelings, here are six ways to build emotional literacy:

1.  Pay attention to your own feelings. Learn to differentiate between your feelings and your child’s, and keep the boundaries clear.  Doing so will allow you to tolerate the negative emotions.

2. Do not make his feeling your feeling.  Be empathetic without adding octane to the feeling. Acknowledge and validate, but do not fuel his feeling his anger or sadness by adding your own frustration.  Saying I’m really upset that your play date got cancelled, too  just invigorates his disappointment; it will also make your child feel responsible for your feelings, which is not the goal.

3. Teach your child to recognize and name his feelings. Just like learning a new language, he will feel empowered by his ability to communicate. He’ll be more more in control and less less overwhelmed.

4. Support your child’s expression of all feelings, positive and negative.  Saying  Aw c’mon. You’re not really mad about that, are you? not only teaches your child not to trust his feelings, but also says negative feelings aren’t valid.

5. Pause before you jump in to cure unhappiness.  Children need to learn how to soothe themselves. Lend an ear and offer suggestions for the expression and handling of the feeling.  (Boy are you angry! Let’s go find something you can hit really hard to get those angry feelings out)

6. Support resilience.   Children need to experience the reality that in time they will feel better, though in the moment it’s hard to believe. (Right now you are so disappointed. I know that later you’ll feel better. Shall we look at some books together now?). Later, in a calmer moment, point out how before he was so disappointed and now he is fine.


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