I just finished watching season 2 of 13 Reasons Why. It was intense and I am not going to get into the nuances of the whole season here. There is just too much to cover.
Anyway, when you see the part I am choosing to focus on you will probably be surprised. And don’t worry for those of you who haven’t gotten to Season 2 yet. There’s no spoiler alert here.
To set the scene, Zach is having a fight with his mom about why he doesn’t talk to her about the way he feels.
Mrs. Dempsey: “Why would you keep this from me?”
Zach: “’Cause that’s how we do things, isn’t it?”
Mrs. Dempsey: “What does that mean?”
Zach: “I don’t even know how you feel about Dad dying. I don’t know how you feel about anything. What if I felt like Hannah did? Because I have, Mom. I actually have. What would you do?”
Mrs. Dempsey: “Zachary Shan-Yung Dempsey, that is enough! Don’t say such things.”
Zach: “Why not?”
Mrs. Dempsey: “This trial. That girl, has put thoughts in your head. You do not feel that way. You’re fine!”
Zach: “Yeah, exactly. I’m fine.”
I stopped dead when I watched this scene. I had to pause it. And to my husband’s dismay go into a 10 minute dissertation about what it all meant. Cue his eye roll.
If you are still wondering what it was about this interaction between Zach and his mother that struck me, I will explain.
My emphasis on the line “You do not feel that way. You’re fine!” was not a mistake.
From the time children are little, they are frequently told that what they are feeling is not true. And much of the time it comes from a place of love and care.
Bear with me here.
They fall, we say: “You’re ok. That didn’t hurt.”
They tell us they are scared, we say: “No, you’re not. This isn’t scary.”
They say they hate their sister, we say: “No you don’t, you love her.”
They are agonizing over social media posts gone wrong, we say: “This really isn’t a big deal.”
And I get it. As parents we don’t want our children to suffer, to feel bad, sad, scared, or hurt. It’s hard to watch them deal with strong emotions like frustration or anger. We don’t want to make their crying worse when they fall so we try to avoid them having any reaction at all.
But consider this. If you were walking down the street and an older gentleman tripped and fell in front of you, would you stand over him and say “Dust it off buddy, you’re fine.”?
If you’re best friend told you how scared she was to go to the doctor, would you say “No you’re not, the doctor isn’t scary.”?
Sometimes we say things to kids we would never dream of saying to an adult.
And even though we have the best of intentions, when we try to stop our kids from feeling a certain way by brushing it off, distracting them, or by trying to take away the frustration, we are missing an opportunity to help them learn to work through those feelings. When they fall and it actually hurts, and we tell them they are “fine” or “ok”, we are sending a confusing message that they don’t really know about their own body. We are communicating to them that they are not the authority on their feelings or of themselves. That their own feelings can’t be trusted.
Humans learn compassion by being exposed to it; just as we learn to handle being frustrated by being exposed to frustration. Avoidance does not help us learn to cope with struggle.
So, I encourage you to try out switching it up.
Child falls: “Ouch, falling hurts sometimes.”
Child is scared: “This one is really tough for you. Even adults get scared sometimes.”
Child is angry at sister and says she hates her: “You are so mad right now you even feel like you hate her.”
Teen struggling with mean social media posts: “You must feel really hurt by this.”
I am wondering how you feel reading this. Angry, annoyed, guilty. You may even feel like I am being extreme. Whatever it is you are allowed to feel it. These are all normal reactions.
And I’ll add, there is an actual evolutionary reason why you want to try to help your child avoid disappointment, hurt, fears and so on. Humans are hard wired to avoid pain and suffering. It’s what kept us alive when we were running from dinosaurs and what still serves to keep us safe from certain dangers. Most of us, however, don’t have as many overt dangers lurking around the next corner. So really, there is no need to try to avoid these strong emotions. Learning to manage them will serve us well in modern day.
And finally, reacting doesn’t mean over-reacting and acknowledging won’t make the emotional expression worse. Not acknowledging actually has the potential to do that, because your child may feel like you don’t “get it,” that they have to do something more to help you understand how serious it is.
By validating their experience you are connecting with them. You are showing them you have faith in their ability to manage disappointment, you are helping them build resilience, and you are communicating trust; trust that they have the ability to get through life’s difficulties and trust that you are a strong and loving presence for them.
Stayed tuned for Part 2, as I take a look at the other things we may be inadvertently, and non-maliciously, teaching our children.
Was this helpful? Email me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you feeling like the daily struggle is just too much? Are you worried your child may have needs that extend beyond what you are currently able to offer them? Do you live in Central New York? If you are interested in learning more about psychotherapy and play therapy for your child I can be reached at 315-737-3094 or email@example.com
Jennie Mazza Jones, LCSW, RPT, CCPT has a private practice located in Clinton NY, where she specializes in providing psychotherapy to children and their caregivers utilizing Play Therapy. Jennie helps kids who long to feel accepted, want to do well, and wish they could control their worries, anger, and behaviors, but struggle because they communicate in a way that many adults don’t understand. She also helps parents/caregivers who want to help the important children in their lives reach their truest potential, but are afraid to make the wrong move, fear the worst, or are just unsure of what to do next.