When someone is experiencing a strong feeling, sometimes we “try to help” by telling her or him “it’s not so bad.” This attempt to minimize the negative experience — to save someone from the struggle, actually undermines the effort to help.
I wrote the article below over 12 years ago. Max is bigger than me now. It’s sometimes hard, with a teenager, to remember that tiny boy. But the challenge of acknowledging, or validating, feelings remains much the same. Sometimes it’s helpful to think of emotions like waves upon the beach. Sometimes crashing, sometimes smooth, but not something to fix. They “are what they are” and they come and go in a natural flow.
Sometimes when Max wakes up from his naps, he’s sad — especially when his mama isn’t home. Since Patty often uses naptime for her work, I’ve struggled to keep wakeup time from being a descent into wailing. Yesterday when he woke up, I practiced recognizing his feelings without fixing or correcting.
“I want Mama,” sulked Max, somehow accusing me for being the wrong parent.
My initial impulse was to react with hurt and say, “Well she’s not here and I am, so take or leave it, bub.” I resisted, and instead said lovingly, “You really want Mama, don’t you?”
“Yes,” replied a slightly-less-vexed Max.
I forgot my plan for a moment, and shifted to “reality” saying, “I’m sorry she’s not here, Maxie, but I’ll snuggle with you.” I was thinking, “She’s going to be here in ten minutes, it’s not that bad!” I suspect he heard my effort to minimize his feelings:
“GO Away Daddy. I want MAMA,” re-escalated Max.
Again, part of me felt rejected and wanted to go away. Instead, I chose to speak to the want that Max was expressing. I sat down on his bed and said, “I really miss her too. It’s sad when she’s not home.”
“Yah,” admitted Max, reaching out closer to me.
“She’s such a good snuggler, and so warm and just right. I love her so much too — sometimes I really miss her.”
“Yah,” affirmed Max, now snuggling close to me.
“I wish we could both snuggle with her right now. She could hold you close, and we could all squeeze into your little bed. And we’d just have a lovely snuggle.”
Suddenly, Max changed gears and spoke in his “you silly Daddy voice” — “But my bed isn’t big enough.”
When I gave into the impulse to “solve” the situation by telling Max the facts, I was forgetting (again) that facts are not relevant to the emotional brain. When I say, “You know Mama’s going to be home soon, right?” I’m also saying, “You should not feel sad.” While my impulse may be kind, it’s actually dismissive.
Max wanted his mama, facts wouldn’t change that. When I stopped “fixing it” and participated in his world, I let him feel that I truly understood his feelings. In the end, he knew I understood, and that let him move on.
It’s fairly easy to see this in child of two-and-a-half — but the premise is true for people of all ages. Feelings are real, even when the causes don’t make sense to another person. And when people are sad, understanding is infinitely more precious that facts.