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5 Ways to Teach Your Kids to Be “Unhappy”
“I just want them to be happy.” Have you ever found yourself saying this in regards to your kids? If so, you’re like almost every parent ever. We live our lives like human pacifiers, striving to meet our kids every need and want. Sure there are times where they experience momentary disappointment, but you’re always right there. You rush in to soothe them and find a way to make it all better. It seems so obvious that you would comfort them – after all, why let them suffer when it is so easy for you to take the pain away?
Dr. Robin Berman, a psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA, says that this desire to make our kids happier can have even farther reaching consequences than more parents can imagine. By rushing to fill your child’s every need, you are essentially becoming your child’s first co-dependent relationship – which can lead them to look for other co-dependent relationships in the future. Furthermore, when you try to constantly protect your child’s emotions, you take away the opportunity for them to learn to self-regulate.
As a parent, you are your child’s emotional coach. You teach your kids how to process big emotions. Let’s be real, the world doesn’t exist to make your kid happy and they will experience setbacks, failures, and disappointments in their adult life. If – during their childhood – they didn’t handle these emotions, they will be ill-equipped as adults. One of the best life-skills you can teach your child is how to be at home with their emotions; this will aid them in navigating work, friendships, and love later in life.
There is an enormous lack of emotionally stable role-models in today’s media. The “real” housewives throw hissy fits, Political figures call each other names, and an increasing number of sitcoms prominently feature adults who can’t control their own emotions. This is the new normal.
This is why it is so important that we teach our kids to control their own “emotional thermostats” (Dr. Berman).
But how? Here are 6 ways to teach your child to manage their emotions:
1: Let your child experience negative feelings – without fixing them or adding to them.
Kids need to be seen and heard. Let your child know that you understand where they are coming from, and maybe ask them what they are going to do about their problem. For example: If your child has problems with a kid at school, don’t say “Oh, their mom is terrible too!” This only piles your feelings on top of your kids. On the other hand, don’t offer to speak with the child/mom to resolve the problem, this robs your kid of the chance to problem-solve. Instead, you can say something like “Wow, I can see you’re really upset about that. What are you going to do?” Or “What will you do differently next time?”.
Dr. Berman says that a good rule of thumb is this: “When in doubt, stay out. Allow your child the amazing gift of working through [their] feelings on [their] own.”
2: If you treat your kids like they’re fragile, they will become fragile.
Emotional hurdles are small when your kids are young – if you let them practice now, they will be able to jump much bigger hurdles in the future.
3: Teach by example.
This is probably one of the hardest things on this list. As parents, we need to self-reflect so that we can parent better. If we want our kids to stop screaming, we need to stop screaming at them. If we don’t want them to be impatient, we need to learn to be patient. If we want our kids to regulate their emotions, we need to regulate our own.
4: Validate your child’s feelings.
When you say something like “Stop crying, that didn’t hurt,” you don’t make your child’s feelings go away, you send them underground. Your first response as a parent should always be: I see you, I hear you, I get you. As parents, it is very easy to skip over empathy, and only see the teachable moment. For example, your child picks up something they want in the store. Your first response may be “Put that down!” but a better response would be “I can see that you like that item, but we’re not here for that today. Please put it back.” If you acknowledge them and use empathy, you can help them diffuse overwhelming emotions.
5: Don’t trade feelings for rewards.
If we want our kids to learn to soothe themselves, we have to stop offering an external object for comfort. It may seem easy in the moment to placate your crying child with a cookie or entertain them with games on your phone, but it will be much better for them in the long-run if you just let them feel what they are feeling and work through it. Emotion has the word motion in it because we have to work through them.
If everyone in the world could learn to manage their emotions, life would still have ups and downs. But it would be a lot easier – we would have all the tools in our emotional toolbox to handle any challenge that life throws our way. So instead of trying to raise “happy” children, try to raise children who can manage their feelings – and then you’ll be doing both!