Helping Children Resolve Emotional Hurts

By Naomi Aldort

Dahlia was running around the house screaming and crying. "I hate her! I hate her! I will never play with her again!" Finally, her steps slowed, and she told her father what had happened. He listened attentively. When she stopped, he asked, "Is there anything else?" Dahlia added more details and resumed crying bitterly. Father listened. When Dahlia stopped talking, he acknowledged, "It must hurt to be teased like this by your best friend Tina." Dahlia accepted her father's embrace and support as she sobbed some more in his arms. Then as suddenly as the storm of tears began, she was finished. She got up and cheerfully announced, "Daddy, did you know that tomorrow Tina and I are going together to the beach? We are building a log house there with Adam and Tom. I will tell Tina before we go that I won't ruin her work again, and I am sure she will be nice to me."

Why was this encounter so successful? How did Dahlia get over her upset so completely and become aware of her responsibility in the matter on her own?

There were three main ingredients in her father's reaction that worked: 1) Attention 2) Respect 3) Trust. He gave his daughter full attention and took her seriously as she poured out her feelings. He respected her by not intervening with words of wisdom, advice or help. He validated the feelings she expressed. And he trusted her to do and say what she needed in order to lead herself toward resolution of her emotions.

In other words, he followed her lead and supported her as she resolved her own upset until her cup of anguish was "empty" and she was ready to get back into life. Some may be surprised that not only did she recover her spirit, but also admitted her own cause in the matter and made a commitment to "clean up her act." It would have been so tempting for her father to inquire, "What did you do to cause this?" or to make a suggestion such as, "Maybe you can get together and talk about it." But his trust and support gave Dahlia the power to generate her own insight.

We are often tempted to share our wisdom and give advice to our children instead of listening to them. Consider this - when we do give advice or feedback like: "Maybe you hurt her too?" or: "You should have called me" or any other comment representing our own perception of the situation, the result is almost always an escalation of the upset into a bigger tantrum. Why? Because now, in addition to whatever other hurt the child is dealing with, she is furious at us for not listening and for judging and undermining who she is. It is never useful to give advice to the wise. And our children are very wise - indeed masterful - at healing themselves from emotional upsets and distress when given supportive nonjudgmental attention.

Although our society is generally known to be uncomfortable with silence, saying nothing is often the best thing we can do for our child's emotional well-being. Silent, attentive listening is a vote of confidence, trust, respect and love. Listening gives the child a clear message that we care, that we accept her - even when her actions are not approved - and that her safe way of unloading the pain is trusted and respected. Even knowing this, I sometimes find myself advising my children in spite of my better intentions. When I catch myself, I apologize and resume listening.

If words of validation bring on a wave of fury in your child, remember silence. The child needs to be listened to, and giving the gift of silence is often the best way to show love. True validation with no hidden judgment or advice helps the child to express her feelings through crying, which leads to emotional recovery. Sometimes it may generate rage, which when freely expressed will unleash the pain as well. Even though a dramatic expression of emotions may feel uncomfortable to us, to the child it is a healthy way to release the pent-up emotion. I have more than once listened to vows of hate and anguish between siblings who screamed, "I will never play with him!" I said nothing but "Oh" at the very end, and was always rewarded with the sound of laughter ringing from the playroom within minutes. When hateful feelings are expressed in the validation of silent listening, the child can move through the emotion and experience love and happiness.

Parents often pose this question about their child's chosen form of expression. "Yes," they say, "but what if the child is being destructive or hurting someone in his anger and anguish?"

First of all, we need to consider what destructiveness is. The opportunities for children to heal themselves from emotional hurt are many and abound in everyday life for every child. If the action is safe for everyone - let the child do it! In fact, a parent can increase the value of a safe aggressive act by supporting the child in feeling powerful. Most children's agonies come from feeling helpless, controlled and powerless.

One day when one of my sons was 4, he emptied his chest of clothes onto the floor with glee. I responded with a dramatic, "Oh No!" which gave him the sense of power he was looking for. I reorganized it only so that he could repeat the "therapy." I trusted in his need to do so and in the usefulness of the process. After two months of this game and other safe "power games," the behavior disappeared and with it a lot of jealousy-related stress and disruptive behavior.

The same is true in regard to children's aggressive games with each other. Often what shows up as a fight with a victim is really a very effective therapy for all involved. When no one is really hurt, staying out of the way is best. Again, trust is the rule. If things aren't safe, someone will come seeking assistance. When a baby is involved or we are otherwise concerned, we can follow our instincts to glance and check on them to make sure they are safe, but we should stay unseen when possible.

There are many other examples of safe aggression as well as activities that can easily be redirected to safe ones. Tearing books can be directed to a pile of old magazines, painting walls to art work on paper. A simple need to break things can be redirected to making kindling from the wood pile outside or breaking some useless material we intend to throw away. When it is safe it is not really destructive. Contrary to the concerns of many parents, children distinguish well between the support of an emotional need and blanket permission to destroy. They will not become destructive or disrespectful of valued property. The opposite will result. Letting their need pour out freely and safely will allow them to be peaceful and respectful of possessions we care about, and yet remain clear about the distinction between what can be broken and what should not. Our fears are not only unfounded, but also get in the way of helping our children.

A real destructiveness is one that is unsafe or too difficult to repair. In these cases, guidance and special attention should be given to the source of the problem. A destructive behavior signifies a great pain and need. It is when they behave the worst that children need our love the most. A child needs to know that expressing anger through words, tears, screams, or safe aggressive actions is fine, but hurting others or destroying things is absolutely not acceptable and needs to be stopped. The destructive child needs our help in dealing with his source of pain. He needs our compassion, love, and lots of time. But first, the aggressive unsafe act needs to be stopped immediately, without hurting or insulting the child.

This may be very difficult at times since our own pain drives us to anger despite ourselves. We need to treat ourselves with the same compassion we do our child. Like the child, we cannot allow our anger to hurt another, and at the same time we need an outlet to our self-expression. In my work with parents I have found that yelling actually does not help us deal with our pain - it's a cover-up. When we do control our impulse to yell or punish, and respond compassionately, we sometimes are fortunate to feel the pain and even cry.

Another factor is the modeling to our child. Children lose control just like adults, but more easily and have less experience in handling themselves when upset. When we respond to their out-of-control behavior in a gentle and loving way, we are showing them by example a model of self-control and compassion they can emulate. Children look to us for reassurance that when they grow up they will be more able to control their own impulses. Seeing us out of control toward them is therefore very discouraging and disabling - especially on top of the personal hurt this causes them. If we cannot control our pain-based impulses how can they?

When we stop an unsafe, out-of-control act in a gentle manner, we send our child a triple reassurance: 1) "I can count on my parents to help me when I lose control." 2) "When I grow up I will be able to control myself and act with compassion like my parents do." 3) "My parent sees my need. I am not bad; it is my action that is wrong. I am loved and lovable - and, like them, I will learn to express myself freely but safely."

It is therefore best to stop an unsafe act gently and clearly. A child needs a reminder that feelings can be expressed but not acted on. An aggressor can be lovingly removed from the act, hugged (when receptive), and told: "I see you are very upset, (angry, scared). I'll help you vent your feelings safely and resolve your needs". When there is a victim, we should tend to him first, without scolding the aggressor. The aggressor will benefit from watching our compassion toward the hurt child and is likely to feel remorse. Scolding or punishing the aggressor, on the other hand, takes the opportunity for developing remorse away from him. Instead, he may feel rage and self-hatred.

When Lennon was 4 1/2, he became very annoying and sometimes aggressive toward his I 1/2-year-old brother, Oliver. Since this was a new behavior in our house, we didn't think much about it initially and just brushed him off with orders to stop it - in a stern voice. Two weeks later, when alone with Lennon, I expressed my love for him and told him what a wonderful person he was. I was shaken by his response: "You don't love me. I am terrible."

"Why?" I asked anxiously, and he answered: "Because I hurt Oliver." A child who was never punished and had always been a cheerful delight was wilting in front of my eyes with jealousy and was developing a low self-image.

That day I started hugging him every time he disturbed or hurt Oliver. I know this sounds like a reward - but only to us grown-ups. A child who hurts is not experiencing himself as being bad. He is experiencing a deep pain, loneliness, lovelessness and loss of control. I responded to his cry for help and love by giving him what he needed. My initial reaction was based on fear and was therefore counter-productive, When I ordered Lennon to stop disturbing his brother - then and only then were his feelings of being "bad" internalized and reinforced. If I had continued scolding him, he may have turned into a bitter bully. Instead, I changed my behavior and responded to his plea for love.

Discovering the source of the problem - jealousy - led me to devote a lot of one-on-one time with Lennon, boosting his self-image. "I am so lucky to share life with you," "You are so important to me," "I love you," "What an awesome person you are" are all words I shared in our times together. When he hurt his brother, I would stop him gently, give love, and say "You are a wonderful person. I see that you want to hurt your brother. It is normal to feel that way. I love you just the same when you are hurting him, but we cannot hurt him. When you grow up you'll be able to control yourself. For now I'll help you." And I helped him until he recovered his exuberance and love of life, of himself, and of his brother.

There are many such stories from my family and families I work with. The common thread in all of them is trusting the child. If she "misbehaves," she is hurting inside. If our compassionate response isn't helping, it does not mean we should stop trusting and accepting. Rather, it means that there is more to the cause than meets the eye. We need to search, or seek the help of someone who can help us do the detective work into our child's soul. Our love and compassion are our greatest assets in these emotional adventures.

We may find it difficult to put our own emotional reactions aside - our anger, our upset and our unresolved problems from our own childhood. These are real obstacles to helping our children. When reaction seems unavoidable, I remove myself from the scene (not necessarily physically), take a breath and "time out" for myself. I try to get in touch with the trigger of my emotions and cry, or just calm down enough to be able to attend to my child, keeping my ego out of the way.

When validated and listened to, children unload emotional upsets in their own creative ways. It is important to allow crying to take its full course (while giving the child our full attention) and to develop attentiveness to tantrums and rage expressions. Being noisy, giggly and screechy are also emotionally beneficial. Other than moving ourselves to a different room, or asking the children to keep their play in another room (or outside) - these have no "cure". Rather, these behaviors are the cure and the child's way of healing many of life's upsets. Children are simply magical at directing their own dramatic moments. We can trust them and learn from them.

When we face behavior in our children that is upsetting to us, we have two choices. We can respond from our own fear (which may lead to words and acts that invalidate) or we can empathize with the child (which is a response of love). Although sometimes parents may need a counselor's assistance with children, developing trust and the ability to listen and validate can go a long way toward a harmonious family life and emotionally healthy, self-reliant children.

Reprinted and revised with permission from The Nurturing Parent magazine.

See also "How to Give Advice to Children"



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