‘Why does my child react hysterically to sad parts in books, and get obsessed with that page (or the book) coming to an end? I said “Spot the dog was sad” and he was bawling even though I was trying to move forward and show he was happy in the end.’
This wonderful example of emotional overexcitability was posted by a mother on the PowerWood Facebook group. Her son was just 18 months old. (The mum kindly gave me permission to share her words here.)
As adults we find it unfathomable that a child could be rendered hysterical by a story about Spot the dog. But even very young children with emotional OE experience deeper, more complex emotions than many adults realise is possible.
I remember being baffled when my own four-year-old daughter shouted at me to turn off a Barbie movie she’d begged to watch. And similarly shocked when she began sobbing as we played her favourite High School Musical CD in the car. (She later explained that ‘Barbie’s stepmother and sisters were really mean to her’ and that ’Troy just sounds so sad in that song (sob)’.)
Our children’s sadness triggers our pain
The heightened compassion, empathy and sensitivity that our emotionally OE children possess are hereditary personality traits. So if your child has emotional OE, you may well have it, too.
And just as our children absorb the pain of others, so we are acutely sensitive to their feelings. When one of my children is upset, I can become deeply uncomfortable and feel an intense urge to make them feel better as quickly as possible.
As the Facebook mum eloquently put it, ‘his heartbroken crying is like a reflection of my darkest moments.’
Why we shouldn’t always follow our instincts
But although the urge to make our child feel better seems like an instinct, we’re better off pausing before we rush in to reassure our child that ‘it’s only a story’ and that ‘everything turns out in the end’.
When we’re upset we revert unconsciously to the parenting model we inherited from our own childhoods. And for the many of us who were trained as children by the well-meaning big people in our lives not to show negative emotion, that’s not helpful.
Mindfulness author Sandy Newbigging spoke about this at a conference I recently attended.
‘We tell our kids, “Don’t be sad!”’ says Newbigging. ‘But sadness is okay. It’s conflict with an emotion that causes suffering and stress.’
Instead of rushing our children on from sadness, he suggests that we allow them the freedom to fully experience and process their emotions.
Can you imagine how scary and isolating it must feel to a young child to be gripped by a strong emotion and to feel that no one else gets it? (‘What’s wrong with me?’) Or worse, to see us becoming stressed? (‘There must be something really wrong!’)
Our sensitive children need to know that we understand how they’re feeling, and that those feelings are okay.
Compassion = Love + Wisdom
In his talk Sandy Newbigging illustrated what compassion (love + wisdom) looks like with a cute series of stick man drawings something like this:
How not to get triggered when our children feel sad
It takes time and practice to be able to hold space for our children without getting triggered ourselves.
We need to take care of our needs and do the work to heal our own unprocessed pain. And when we acknowledge that expressing all their emotions is a healthy part of our children’s development, we take a big step forward in that healing process.
“It’s important to remember that … you can’t actually hold space for long if you haven’t also received the same kind of loving space yourself.”
So when intense feelings overwhelm our emotionally OE children, let’s not jump into negativity with them.
Let’s rejoice that they feel safe expressing themselves. Let’s give them time to process their big emotions. And let’s remember that these young people’s sensitivity and empathy will lead them into deep and fulfilling relationships throughout their lives and probably help make the world a better place.
Focusing on these positives might just give us the strength we need stay present and give our children what they need most – a loving container for their big feelings.
15 Things your child with emotional overexcitability might say – LLL blog post
An Introduction to OE – PowerWood flyer
Living With Intensity, Susan Daniels & Michael Piechowski – book
PowerWood Facebook group – a place to share ideas, information and encouragement about intensity, super-sensitivity and hyper-reactivity (OEs).
Holding space (Mothers Awakening) – article
Find out more about Sandy Newbigging’s ‘Calmology’ work and his six no.1 bestselling books here.
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Has your child ever cried at a picture book, a Barbie movie, or a Disney soundtrack?
How do you stay connected without jumping in the hole with them?
I’d love to hear from you!
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