The Mistake Most of Us Make When Our Children Feel Sad

when our children feel sad

‘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:

when our children feel sad - parent looking at child stuck in hole stickman drawing
It’s hard when we see our child stuck in a difficult place …

 

stick man parent & child stuck in hole - when our children feel sad
… but when we join them, we’re stuck too
when our children feel sad - giving stickman in hole a ladder
If we can put aside our judgements and love them wherever they are, we can access our wisdom…

 

when our children feel sad - stick men beside hole
…to help them to get unstuck and move on.

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.”

Holding Space (Mothers Awakening)

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.

Resources

Emotional OE

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

Holding space (Mothers Awakening) – article

What it really means to hold space for someone – article

Sandy Newbigging

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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6 thoughts on “The Mistake Most of Us Make When Our Children Feel Sad

  1. Love the stick drawings! And the reminder that it is important to ‘hold space’ for our children rather than dismiss their feelings, try to move them on too quickly or get stuck with them.

  2. I’ve always believed strongly in acknowledging and validating all feelings. From the outside, the situation and emotional response may seem irrational or unjustified, but to that person, those emotions are very real. Sometimes just an acknowledgement is enough to diffuse a strong emotion. I have a hard time hearing parents/teachers tell children ‘don’t be sad’. How can you just turn off feeling sad if you’re genuinely feeling sad??

    One of my girls LOVED the Aladdin movie when she was about 2yrs old. But she bawled each time in the part where Aladdin and Abu come across the two hungry children in the marketplace.

    And another daughter can’t watch Toy Story without getting upset at the penguin toy who isn’t needed or loved any more and gets left on the shelf getting dusty 🙁 Those of us here with emotional OEs can get quite attached to inanimate objects and really FEEL things very deeply. Acknowledging this is important.

    Off my soapbox now :o)

    1. I love hearing you talk from your soapbox, M! Your examples always make me think or add clarity, and make a valuable contribution to the conversation. You have a lot of experience with emotional OE – thank you for sharing it.😊 Oh my goodness, Toy Story – sob. Those folks at Pixar know how to take us on an emotional rollercoaster!

  3. I had to really think what I do in this situation. I know, because I feel strongly about almost everything 🙂 , that I make sure each member of my family knows that feelings are not something to be scared of, that there are no wrong feelings and that often, by being honest about what those feelings are and where they come from, it takes away their power.
    I know I definitely feel that I want to make everything right with their world. More often than not we will end up talking for hour (and hours….) which (I think?) helps them work their way through their feelings in a healthy way. We will also brainstorm together ideas of actions they might like to take to help themselves feel better.
    Honestly? I’m not sure if I get into the pit with them or help them out of the pit. All I do know is that where ever we are, we are together, and they never feel they have to go through it alone.
    Great thought provoking post, although I am absolutely none the wiser as to what I do!!

    1. I know what you mean, Claire. In reality I guess we do what feels right in the moment, guided by all our learning and experience and understanding of the dear, unique individual we’re dealing with at that time. I know what feels right with my son is often quite different from what will help my daughter, and I’m sure that’s the case when you have more children, too. I think I wrote this post partly in response to the Facebook conversation and partly because I’m on the cusp of becoming the mum of a teenager (tomorrow!). Always good to remind oneself that all feelings are okay. 😊

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