Sylvie came to my office after the initial series of counseling sessions she’d had with her son had wrapped up two years ago. We talked about the many ways their life had changed since then. She shared this:
“I was in so much pain when Sam and I started counseling, but my heart was frozen. It wasn’t until we began coming to see you that I finally began to understand that feelings are okay and normal. I got so much from watching you encourage Sam to say what he was feeling, or cry, or yell. I had been numb for so long… But our lives changed in every way once I let Sam–and me– feel our feelings.”
Sylvie had been raised in a family that viewed emotions as a sign of weakness. She and her siblings were taught early on to deal with life on its terms and keep a VERY stiff upper lip. They didn’t complain and never cried as they knew they’d be punished.
When Sylvie left home, she had internalized the belief that feeling sad or angry was self-indulgent. But pushing feelings aside doesn’t make them go away. She developed depression in her teens, struggled with an eating disorder, and went through a series of bad relationships with men who treated her poorly.
She was raising two children on her own when she came to see me after the school insisted she get help when her eight-year old son’s aggressive behavior began to escalate.
After a few sessions with Sylvie and Samuel, we began to unearth some of the elements contributing to his outbursts at school. He rarely saw his father and harbored a profound sadness. When Sam started opening up in our sessions, it was difficult for Sylvie to watch me encourage him to express his emotions without trying to fix things or make him feel better. I had to reassure her that expressing anger or sadness was normal, and even healthy.
Over time, Sylvie became more comfortable sitting quietly as I helped Sam reached beneath his rage to access the sorrow he felt over his dad. Sam’s behavior dramatically improved as he was offloaded feelings with me. But beyond the benefit to her little boy, Sylvie’s toughened demeanor began to crack.
I love being a therapist and have been infinitely inspired by the work my clients do. It’s not easy to face long held beliefs or fears, or to release them in favor of healthier ones. Sylvie was one of those brave souls who began to claim her emotional life–the highs and the lows, the goods and the bads–and in so doing, helped her children discover that they could survive times of sadness or frustration or disappointment.
My work is dedicated to this practice: helping parents raise emotionally resilient children. So many of us were raised to hide from difficult feelings. We may have rebelled by having tantrums, or taken our emotions underground, like Sylvie, where they later manifested in psychological distress.
It takes courage to encourage our children to feel their feelings, especially when they feel overwhelming. But the next time your youngster voices an emotion that’s hard to hear, see if you can stay present and see it as a sacred expression of your child’s deeper story.
For more on helping children navigate life’s inevitable ups and downs–and its accompanying emotions–please join me with Elevating Child Care’s Janet Lansbury for a very special Master Class on helping children navigate emotions.
Visit this page for all the details.