You know the old saying, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” I think this was intended to keep kids from blurting out impolite truths like, “This dinner is terrible, Grandma!” But many of us have taken things a bit too far. In many families, children are forbidden to be angry, unhappy, frustrated, or afraid. Negative emotions have become taboo.
Just listen to the moms and dads around you. They tell a child, “Oh, no, you don’t really hate your brother. Give him a kiss and a hug.” They say, “If you’re going to be in such a temper, go to your room!” They say, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Don’t be such a baby.” Children who express the emotions they honestly feel are corrected, if those emotions are negative. It’s as if happy talk is the only talk that’s allowed.
This is silly and it’s also unfair. We grownups feel completely justified in sharing our bad moods with everyone around. We yell, we fume, we stomp around and slam things. We feel justified in our expressions of anger and feel just as justified when we sulk, sigh, and express our unhappiness. Moms and dads are allowed the complete range of emotions and even though we might try to tone things down when we’re near the kids, we certainly don’t keep things bottled up when the children aren’t around.
But children are often restricted to expressing a narrow range of emotions. We don’t want to hear them when they’re angry. We expect kids to be civil and calm much more than we expect of ourselves to be, even though children are far less able to control themselves.
So what do we do? We hate it when children yell, throw tantrums, whine and pout. How can we allow kids to express all the emotional bandwidth they actually have without getting angry ourselves?
- Lower your expectations. Life isn’t always happy. For children, especially, when events frequently seem out of their control, a serene morning is hard to come by. So avoid being surprised when kids get upset. They don’t always have to be happy.
- Give up being 100% responsible. You know very well that you can’t make someone else happy. If your child is unhappy right now, that’s not necessarily your fault and it’s not necessarily your responsibility to fix. If there’s something you can do to cheer someone up, fine, but your child’s mood doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent.
- Avoid emotional contagion. Bad moods can infect everyone around if you let them. You’re not being heartless if you don’t join your child in feeling sad, mad, or bad. By staying calm and unruffled yourself, you keep the entire day from spiraling out of control.
- Be supportive. Many times a child’s disruptive actions are meant to share feelings that are hard to express another way. So your recognition of your child’s feelings might be exactly what is wanted. Say, “I can see you are upset,” or “You feel really angry right now.” Ask your child to tell you about it. Help your child in alternative ways of expressing what’s going on.
There’s a fine line here. Give your children the freedom to feel and express the full range of emotions without having to join your child in expressing negative feelings too. But watch out that you’re not so uninvolved and cool that children feel ignored and rejected. Strong, capable people lead emotionally rich lives. Make that happen for your children and for yourself.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.
You know how this goes. You do something or offer something and your child frowns. He crosses his arms and ducks his head. He glares at you. He pouts. Maybe he lets a tear slide down his cheek.
“Oh! We don’t have any macaroni and cheese. We’re all out!” you say. Your child looks at you with angry eyes.
You’re surprised. You had no idea he would act this way. You want to understand, to make things better. But you can’t make things better. Your child has decided to make you pay.
It’s amazing, when you think about it, the young age at which children learn to sulk. Most are masters by age four or even younger. Many continue to send you on a guilt trip throughout their childhoods and into their teens. There seems to be nothing you can do about it.
You can apologize. “I’m sorry. I thought we had some mac-n-cheese but we must’ve eaten it.” Usually this falls on deaf ears. An apology only confirms your child in the belief that you have failed miserably as a parent. Making you feel badly is exactly what your child had in mind. An apology sometimes works but most likely won’t.
You can offer alternatives. “How about some spaghetti? You like spaghetti.” A child may accept an alternative but not instead of what she originally wanted. She still wants what you didn’t have and she is still holding you accountable for that. Offering a substitute only means you’ll pay twice, for the substitution and for whatever was wanted in the first place.
You can try to cheer your child up. “Oh, come on! Mac-n-cheese has holes in it!!!” But this never works. Your child doesn’t want to be made happier; he’s happy enough putting you through your paces. Your child sees your efforts at being cheerful as a denial of the seriousness of your crime. He will sulk harder, since you obviously don’t understand!
You can growl, telling your child to snap out of it, or “straighten up and fly right,” as my father used to say. This doesn’t work very well. From the child’s perspective she’s being punished now for exposing the truth. You have failed but she’s being yelled at for it. Unfair!
The only technique that works is refusing to play your part. Be pleasant but ignore the sulk. “Oh. We don’t have any macaroni and cheese. We’re all out. Is there anything you’d like instead? No? Okay. Well, tell me if you change your mind.” And then go about your business.
Sulking is a performance. It has to have an audience. No audience, no show.
When your child does come around, saying maybe, “If I can’t have macaroni and cheese, can I have a peanut butter sandwich?” answer as if no sulking has happened. Pick up where you left off, not where the sulking began. This means you shouldn’t say anything about the sulking. Don’t say, “That’s better!” or “I’m glad you’ve decided to be nice now” or anything like that. Let the sulking be something that evaporated.
But if your child says instead, “If I can’t have macaroni and cheese, can I have some candy?” just smile and shake your head. Suggesting an alternative your child knows you won’t agree to is the start of another sulk-session.
Don’t play along!
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.