As parents, our instinctive response to our children’s distress is often to reassure them with the words, “It’s going to be fine.” While the intention behind these words is undoubtedly comforting, it’s crucial to recognise that this seemingly reassuring phrase may inadvertently leave our children feeling alone with their hopelessness.
We all have a set of core emotions; Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. Disney’s Inside Out did a great job of explaining their role which I talk about here. Emotions are essential to our survival because they help us make sense of how to stay safe and make connections. But because the ‘negative’ emotions come with secondary emotions, like shame and anxiety, we have a tendency to defend ourselves against them.
As parents we naturally worry that we may not have the right answers or fear we might make the situation worse and resort to quick reassurances.
However, when we tell our children everything is fine, when it feels anything but fine to them, we risk invalidating their feelings. And we want them to trust themselves to explore their feelings to stay safe and connected in the world.
Exploring Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust requires a nuanced approach.
Parents can empower their children by acknowledging and validating their feelings. By saying, “I can see that you’re feeling scared,” or “I wonder if you feel sad right now,” parents create a safe space for their children to express and process their emotions. Dr Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist calls this process ‘name it to tame it’.
The power of being understood lies in its ability to foster connection and resilience.
When children feel heard and validated, they develop a sense of security that enables them to navigate through their emotions with greater ease. This understanding acts as a compass, guiding them through the stormy seas of their feelings and helping them emerge stronger on the other side.
In contrast, dismissing their emotions with a generic assurance may inadvertently isolate children, leaving them to grapple with their emotions alone.
When as parents we embrace vulnerability and engage in open conversations with our children, we show it is safe to feel ‘negative’ emotions.
By doing so, they not only build trust and connection but also equip their children with the emotional intelligence necessary for a well-rounded and resilient adulthood.
Instead of offering quick assurances, parents can unlock the power of understanding by accepting and acknowledging their children’s emotions. In doing so, they provide a foundation for emotional resilience and a lifelong skill set for navigating the complexities of building relationships.
If you want to begin conversations with your child to explore emotions our Cards to Help You Connect packs, come with a poster and characters that allow you to develop those conversations. Each character has a different expression and your child can build stories with you about what is happening for each of them.
Charlotte Jenkins is the founder and a director of Beacon Family Services. She is an experienced social worker supporting children and families therapeutically using Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy.