Is it painful for you when your kids express negative emotions?
I know how hard it can be to accept when your kids struggle through tough emotions. Kids experience negative emotions like anger, fear and sadness following their parent's divorce.
They also experience them when a parent re-couples. Their negative emotions spike through the step-family integration process and all that comes with managing unwanted changes and complex relationships.
I remember being gripped with uneasy fear as I watched my daughter Annika battle through confusion and painful emotions that seemed to consumed her. In these moments, I had a battle of my own going on - countless concerns about if, when and how to approach her.
I wasn't confident I would have the strength or skill to help her. Would I be able to connect with her and understand her struggle or would I be overcome by my own painful emotions? Guilt was a biggie for me!
My natural instinct was to protect Annika from her pain by either distracting her or attempting to paint a "silver lining" on her circumstances. But I realized that grasping for an "easy fix" was futile. There are no easy fixes for kids coping with blended family dynamics and realities that aren't going to change - realities they never asked for.
Entering into the Pain
Eventually, I understood that the best thing I could do for my hurting child was to enter into her painful reality - no matter how unprepared or emotionally fragile I was feeling. This wasn't always easy, but it was always worth it.
Here are three reasons why open communication is invaluable for your kids - and for your relationship with them:
1. By creating a safe space for kids to verbally process their emotions, parents build a bridge of connection and understanding with their child. When we avoid difficult conversations and don't allow kids to express negative emotions, we're essentially putting up walls and sending kids this message: "Your emotions are unacceptable and I'm not available to help you". This will lead to kids that withdrawal, feel alone and believe there's something wrong with them.
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2. Engaging in open dialog with kids helps them to move through their tough emotions. I love this simple phrase: 'FEEL, DEAL and HEAL'! Kids do feel and they can easily get stuck in painful cycles of confusion, anger, fear and depression if they aren't able to deal with their emotions in a healthy way.
By listening and empathizing with our kids, we can help them work through their troubling emotions and move toward healing — so they don't stay stuck!
3. Kids can learn how to explore their own solutions and discover practical ways to cope with ongoing stress. But, they need our help! We may not be able to fix or change their realities, but we can encourage them to find creative ways to make things a little better.
We can help kids to accept those things that aren't going to change while we offer some new possibilities: how to live well, even in the tension of challenging dynamics. We can help them brainstorm and explore what they can do to cope and make healthy adjustments through life.
Get help, Gain Skill & Make a Difference!
Thankfully, I had help in conquering my fears and gaining the skills I needed for effective communication with my daughter. Working with a counselor, I was able to get through my own emotional struggles and gained strength for my daughter - this was incredibly helpful and has given me long-term advantages!
I also learned about the benefits of emotion coaching.
According to author John Gottman in his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: "When parents are present for their kids emotionally, helping them to cope with negative feelings, and guiding them through periods of family stress, their children are shielded from many of the damaging effects of divorce." I would add that this also applies to kids navigating through step family dynamics.
From Knowledge to Practice
Simply knowing the value of communication and how it can meaningfully impact our kids doesn't necessarily make it easy. Someone once said, "Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice".
I finally realized that my personal concerns weren't as big and scary as I believed they were and that I was much more capable than I thought. And practice paid off - the more that I engaged in communication with Annika, the easier it got for both of us.
Annika is 22 years old now and we're able to talk openly about everything she experiences in life. Even today, it isn't always easy, but it isn't as hard as it used to be. Our ability to connect is a gift that I'll always be grateful for!
Choose to face your fears, break down the walls and enter into your child's pain - you'll be grateful too.
QUESTION: What can you do to intentionally enter into your child's tough emotions and encourage open communication? Leave a comment below…