Children feel safer when adults have the wisdom to know that two emotions can be real at the same time. Traditionally, grown-ups have often vigorously denied this reality and tried to convince children that there’s only one way to feel, and we know what is.
Child: “No one wants to play with me. I feel left out.”
Adult: “You’re so happy when you’re with your friends.”
Child: “I’m scared about going to kindergarten.”
Adult: “Just the other day, you told me you were excited.”
If we insist children only voice positive feelings, we run the risk of disconnecting from them. We can also lose the opportunity to help them learn to cope with sadness or anxiety.
Adults have tried to reorient children’s emotions in the past, because the old belief was that listening to negative emotions intensifies them. “If I listen to my child’s fears about going to kindergarten or middle school, she’ll be even more afraid.” “If I say I understand my seven-year-old’s anger at her three-year-old brother, she’ll have more hostility toward him.”
Science and our own experience tell us that this pervasive belief simply isn’t true. When others listen to us, difficult reactions actually diminish and lose their sharp edges. Imagine telling a friend, “I’m dreading going to my new job!” and having her respond, “Nonsense, you know you’ll do great!” What is the likelihood you would feel safe confiding in that person again?
Listening strengthens connection. We don’t have to fix every situation in our child’s life, but we do need to stay tuned to what he’s saying and respond with empathy. “It’s hard when you feel left out. What helps when that’s happening? Is there anyone you talk to about it?”