Blogger Katie McLaughlin’s 4-year-old son was getting ready for bed when he realized something: his favorite blanket, the one he always slept with since he was a baby, was missing. There was a brief moment when his parents wondered where it was until the preschooler realized he left his blankie in the car that was already driving far, far away.
“The initial shock was, of course, followed by electric currents of anger that coursed through my son’s little body,” Karie shared on her blog Pick Any Two. “He punched the air and gritted his teeth and screamed, ‘I WILL NOT SLEEP WITHOUT GLENN! I WILL NOT GO TO BED UNTIL HE’S HERE! I WILL NOT GO TO BED EVER AGAIN!’ More punching, more gritting, a few angry flops onto the floor."
Katie knew, at that moment, no amount of reasoning like, “It’s only one night. We’ll get him back tomorrow” and “We have so many other stuffed animals, just sleep with one of them tonight” would appease his son who has never slept without his security blanket.
The mom recognized she needed to let her son to express his emotions before he could be consoled, even if it meant a huge tantrum. There was no shortcut, she said. You just had had to let out these difficult feelings.
“Right when I needed it most, I remembered the train analogy,” she reflected. “Difficult feelings are tunnels, and we are trains traveling through them. We have to move all the way through the darkness to get to the calm, peaceful light at the end of the tunnel.
“That’s why I didn’t say a word to my son. Instead, I just sat next to him as the ripples of anger melted into shaking and sobbing. When I thought it was OK to do so, I started rubbing his back -- still without speaking. He kept crying and crying and crying.”
After a few minutes, his sobs started to subside. Then, he reached over to a book beside him and started flipping through its pages -- Katie took it as a sign he was feeling much better.
It was only then when Katie broached the idea there could be other possible things they could do to make his night more bearable. On his own, her little boy suggested they read two extra books for bedtime and he picked two other stuffed animals to sleep with that night.
Moms and dads should not think their job is about getting a child to stop crying as quickly as possible, said Katie. Instead, she added, we need to provide comfort, show empathy, and help a child go through that emotional tunnel when he feels upset. These intense emotions are overwhelming, and they demand to be felt. So our kids need our understanding and acknowledgement of their feelings.
It's even the same for grown-ups, right? The last thing we want to hear when we're hurt or upset is “it’s not the end of the world,” “cheer up,” or “it’s fine.” Feelings of deep sadness and pain can't easily be brushed aside -- it goes for both adults and children.
“The truth is, rarely can a response make something better,” says renowned research professor, speaker, and best-selling author Brené Brown. “What makes something better is connection.”
Show that you know what your child is going through and, when he’s ready, you’ll be there to provide comfort.