parenting, school psychology

What School Psychologists Know about Difficult Emotions

A trend I have observed in recent years is the increase in the amount of times I make a note in my behavioral observations along the lines of: “demonstrated a low frustration tolerance”. I have also heard more and more from teachers I work with about students who refuse to try new or difficult tasks and will just sit and do nothing unless someone is sitting with them providing constant support. I can’t help but wonder if part of this trend is related to our reluctance, as millennial parents, to let our children experience frustration or other tough emotions.  Perhaps we are too quick to distract a child away from pain or difficulty and swoop in and rescue them from all the yucky feelings we hate to see our children experience.

I’ll be the first one to admit that watching my children cry is The. Worst. It kills a small part of my heart every time. I actually feel the muscle cells expire. Really. It’s bad. But, what I know to be true about feelings, is that we have to feel them all. If we are going to experience joy we also have to be able to sit with our sadness. Dr. Brene Brown says it best with the following quote from The Gifts of Imperfection :

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So in case you were wondering how a School Psychologist takes this message home, here is an illustration for you. When my daughter is melting down about something (usually something pretty minor, but to her it’s huge), I let her get upset. Sure, I could swoop in and figure out a way to move her from the feeling more quickly, but most of the time I don’t. I say something like, “I can see you are feeling really disappointed that you didn’t win this game.” or “I know it’s hard when we are doing fun things and we have to stop to go to bed.” or “I know you get frustrated when you really want to wear the purple dress, but it is in the wash so you have to choose another one.” Like I said, not major problems, easily solvable problems. Could I pull the dress out and get it to her sooner? Sure. Could I have faked my last move and let her win at Candy Land? Of course. But unfortunately for my children, I am a School Psychologist. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I also experience a small amount of happiness in these moments because I really do appreciate being able to walk with her through these experiences in a safe space. Saving her from these feelings would rob her of the opportunity to learn that she has the strength to feel these difficult emotions. She can do it and I can sit with her through it and be there if she needs me.  I believe and trust that she is strong enough to endure sadness and frustration and come out the other side. One of my favorite scenes from the Pixar movie, Inside Out is when Bing Bong sits with Sadness.

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I cried like a baby the first time I saw it looking at my husband saying, “You have to sit with the sadness! We all have to sit with the sadness!” What an amazing illustration of what we all must do sometimes even when it is hard and we long for distractions. It is a gift to our children when we allow them to experience sadness or frustration  in a safe space at home where we can offer support as they move through it.

Here are some simple tips to help you sit with your child through difficult feelings.

  • Always keep an even and neutral tone of voice. Be the strong supportive guide they need without getting too caught up in the feelings you are experiencing.
  • Provide feedback on what you are observing:
    • “This is hard for your right now. It looks like you are feeling very sad about this.”
  • Be available to offer support or space and follow their lead.
    • “Do you need some space?”  If they indicate they do or push away, that’s ok, just remind them, “I’m here when you are ready.” and check up every few minutes.
    • If you are noticing your child might need your presence ask for clarification: “Do you feel like you need a hug?” “Would you like for me to sit with you?” “Should we take some deep breaths to help us feel better?”

Most of the time our children move through the tough feelings much quicker than we expect. When we give them permission to feel difficult emotions, we avoid fighting against them and giving them more power. The more we can equip our kids with the strength and tools to move through it, the more efficient they become at navigating difficult situations. You are setting them up for a lifetime of resilience and strength. When they have moved on and are playing happily and independently you can take your own deep breaths and trust that you did an amazing job.