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
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
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
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
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"