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In our parenting groups and private consultations over the last twenty years of working with families, parents have shared deeply about their lives, both the happy times as well as the more difficult situations or events that they experience. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your perspective – none of us gets through life unscathed by challenges. That goes for kids too, of course.

For many parents, loving your child means protecting her from experiencing tough situations or difficult feelings. In the desire to shelter your child from life’s hardship, it can be easy to imagine that shielding her from the sometimes gritty or painful reality of life circumstances, or sugarcoating the truth, means that she won’t have to feel sadness, disappointment, or a broken heart. Many a “mama bear” has told us that her natural instinct is to do anything to prevent her child from feeling pain.

But as understandable as that parental instinct to protect your child may be, when there is a proverbial elephant in the room, you won’t be able to hide it for long.

Kids are sensitive and perceptive. When parents pretend that everything is “normal” and “fine” and it isn’t – or when they seem tense for no obvious reason, whispering out of earshot – kids go into an inner conflict. They intuitively feel and sense that things are happening in their world that are important, but they’re deeply confused about why no one is talking about them. When kids don’t understand something, they go within and use their imagination to try to figure it out – and more often than not, the stories they tell themselves are far scarier than what’s actually happening.

If you look a little more deeply underneath your understandable tendency to want to protect your child in these moments, you’ll often find something surprising: your own fear. It might sound strange to admit, but most adults are absolutely terrified of their own painful emotions, not to mention your child’s.

Many parents have read all the parenting books that say it’s important for children to have permission and space to feel any and all feelings, whatever they may be, but parents often become paralyzed with anxiety and confusion about how to help them do that. If you feel this way, don’t worry – you’re not alone.

Most of us didn’t learn how to feel our own feelings as kids, as our parents didn’t know how to do this either, let alone how to teach us. The good news is that it’s never too late to learn – and it’s also perfectly OK to learn right alongside your child. (See our book Calm Mama, Happy Baby for mindfulness-based tools that are easy to weave into daily life as a busy mom.)

All it really takes to face pain, and to feel difficult emotions, is willingness. @sleepyplanet (Click to Tweet!)

The willingness to turn toward something that hurts – rather than turning away from that hurt by avoiding it, denying it, eating it, drinking it, or resisting it – brings us into relationship with ourselves, and with life. It puts us squarely in the driver’s seat even when life feels out of control, because the choice to turn toward rather than away from our inner and outer experience is always within our control. One reason that mindfulness has become so popular in recent times is that mindfulness tools and practices provide a kind of road map for navigating the sometimes overwhelming vastness of life. Mindfulness – which can be defined as paying attention to what’s happening outside of us or inside of us without judgment – is an essential life skill that should perhaps be taught right alongside reading, science and math. Imagine a whole generation of kids learning to ride the waves of their inner experience with confidence!

Feelings are an inevitable part of life, and your child will have plenty of opportunities to feel not only sadness but also happiness, fear, confusion, calm, and disappointment, just to name a few. Emotions come in lots of colors, and it’s a parent’s job to help your child get comfortable with the entire rainbow. If you want to raise a child who has integrity, who tells the truth and can be honest about her life experience, who can come to you and pour her heart out about a challenge she’s facing, you yourself must model for her what you’re asking her to do. You don’t have to emotionally dump on your child and go to pieces in front of her, but it can actually be helpful for her to see you cry or feel some of your own emotion, and to hear you taking responsibility for it: “I’m crying because I feel sad that Grandpa died. I really miss him. But these are mommy’s tears, and I’m taking care of myself by letting my sadness be here, and by talking about it. You can cry and talk about your feelings too honey, and mommy will be here to listen.”

GUIDELINES FOR BEING TRUTHFUL WITH KIDS ABOUT DIFFICULT SITUATIONS

  1. First, take some time to process the situation with another adult. Get clear on your own feelings, and let them vent a bit, before you talk to your child.
  2. Have a clear plan for how you will tell your child the truth about what’s going on. Use language that is clear, concise, and age appropriate. If you aren’t sure how much to tell your child given her age, consult with a child development specialist or psychotherapist, or find online resources for guidance.
  3. For young children ages two to seven, you can create a homemade book with stick figures to help with her understand difficult concepts. (Please see our blog from last week on making books for children to help them deal with fears or difficult life events.)
  4. Choose a time to talk with your child when you will not be distracted or interrupted. Don’t discuss anything potentially upsetting for your child before you will be separated, such as before school drop-off or bedtime.
  5. Don’t sugarcoat the situation or try to “fix” his difficult feelings. Pollyanna positivity – “Our doggie died, but guess what? We’re getting a new puppy tomorrow, YAY!” – does not allow your child to properly grieve the loss that has occurred. Avoiding the grieving process will have worse ramifications in the long run than taking things slowly.
  6. Speak slowly and be ready for questions. Dole out the information in small, bite-size chunks and gauge your child’s response. If you aren’t sure about how to answer a question, tell your child that you think his question is a really good one and that you’d like to take some time to think about it before you answer. Be sure to follow through and come back to him with your answer. Note that your child may also come back to you many times over the coming days or weeks to ask more questions; continue to stay open so he can process at a pace that feels comfortable for him.
  7. Be prepared for your child’s response, whatever it may be. He may want to stay very close to you, or he may want to walk away and stop the conversation. Allow him to do what feels right to him, and follow his lead.
  8. Write down what you’ve explained to your child and how you’ve said it – and share this information with the other significant people in your child’s life. All adults in your child’s orbit should be describing the situation to your child in the same way, using similar language.
  9. Lastly, try to keep rules and routines the same for your child throughout whatever difficult incident is going on. You may need to bend some rules for a while if the issue is serious enough, but try to keep some loving structure in your child’s life to give him predictability and a sense of containment in what may be an otherwise tumultuous time.

Your role is not to fix or change or prevent your child’s hardship, but to prepare her for it – and to help her get through it by giving her the tools and supports she needs. The starting place is a clear, honest, developmentally appropriate explanation of what’s happening. The next step is to let her have whatever feelings she has, and to trust your child’s ability to be able to handle those feelings – with plenty of love and hugs. Kids are much more capable than we give them credit for; your child can get through just about anything when she can lean on the support, connection, and empathy you offer, and with your faith in her that she can face whatever challenge is at hand. It’s actually facing the challenge and moving through it, rather than skirting around it, that builds confidence, self-esteem, and resilience.

“There Goes the Motherhood,” a docu-series that follows six moms through an eight-week parenting group, airs on Wednesdays at 10/9c on Bravo. For more information, please visit sleepyplanet.com.


Jill Spivack, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist. Jennifer Waldburger, MSW, is a meditation and mindfulness teacher. Jill and Jennifer are co-founders of Sleepy Planet Parenting, where they draw from their background in child development and family systems to offer groups and private sessions that help families thrive. Their publications include The Sleepeasy Solution and Calm Mama, Happy Baby.” Please visit sleepyplanet.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter.