I recently lost a distant friend. When I learned of her death, I was immediately affected by it. It didn't matter that we were no longer close: I felt engulfed by her loss and wanted to cherish her memory. We sat around the dinner table that evening as a family of four and I shared the news. After dinner, I told my husband that I was just going to sit in our bed and try to read, but really, I just wanted time and space to feel sad. I was in my room for about 10 minutes before my kids (5 and 7) started coming into the bedroom.
They drew me pictures to help cheer me up. They climbed onto my bed and offered me Hershey's Kisses, hugs, and real kisses. While the gestures were sweet, I just wanted to sit in my grief and sadness.
"Look, Mommy!" my daughter said. "Here's a funny face to make you smile!"
"Thank you," I said. "But Mommy just wants to feel sad right now. You don't have to cheer me up."
It's in that moment I realized that I had been making a parenting mistake all this time. I tell my children daily that it's normal to feel intense emotions, and totally OK in our house. I don't hush them up. I know that learning to acknowledge and address their emotions will only help them once they become adults. So I encourage them to feel and appropriately express it all: anger, frustration, sadness, and more. I also try to educate my kids on how to appropriately handle them.
But when my kids were trying to change my mood, I realized that I do this to them, too. While I say with my words that it's OK to feel intensely, my actions say otherwise. You see, when my kids feel sad or angry, as a parent, I just try to fix it, to make it better. But sometimes, as humans, we just want to sit in our feelings. We don't want someone to throw a Band-Aid at us because we're just not ready to paint a smile on our faces.
The very next day, my son grew upset about something. I don't remember what, but I immediately remembered how I felt the day prior. So I tried not to swarm him. His little sister tried to cheer him up by giving him one of her loveys to hug. Again, while the gesture was nice, it was not what he needed. My son said, "I just want to feel sad right now. I'm not ready to cheer up." He had remembered my words from the night before. We gave him the emotional space he needed. My son sat there and wallowed on the couch in the family room. It was OK that he was in a bad mood because he wasn't thrashing out or taking it out on anyone else in the family.
He just needed time and space.
After about 20 minutes or so, he came around when he was ready. "Want to read, Mom?" He asked. As we sat together on the couch and read, I felt his stress slowly melt away. Finally, I had given him the emotional space he needed. The rest of his day was fine because I didn't rush him back into happiness — he figured it out on his own.
Now, I try to remember this lesson every day. I can't be the one who makes them happy in life. My kids need to learn to do that for themselves. Sure, I'll be there as their sounding board and I will do my best to offer them the right tools to enhance their emotional state. But I can't be their sole cheerer-upper. My job is to promote their independence in all areas of life — especially when it comes to their emotional status. Because if they can't do it on their own once they leave home, they may never be able to.