By Naomi Aldort
Author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves
For over twenty years now I have been teaching parents how to connect, validate and understand the needs behind children’s emotional expressions, and allow them to feel and express themselves fully. Yet I noticed new difficult behaviors and dependencies arising as a result of these well intended endeavors. Indeed, some of the kindest parents unintentionally teach their children to feel more entitled and therefore less peaceful.
Many of us grew up emotionally lonely and confused by habitual denial of our feelings. We were told, “Don’t cry, nothing happened,” while inside we felt that a lot happened; or we were shut down with, “You are fine,” when we were hurting inside. It is inspiring to see many of today’s parents trying to give their children the compassion and validation they themselves did not receive. However, in their anxiety to be gentle, parents sometimes don’t realize that they teach victimhood and neediness. They typically call for my guidance saying: “I have been so kind and responsive, why is my child so demanding, whiny, angry and even aggressive?”
How validation and talk about feelings and needs can backfire:
Depending on how we speak, the child can turn validation into seeing herself as a victim; “If my feeling is so right and my need so real, then it is horrible that I am not getting what I want.” The relief of knowing, “Mommy understands how miserable I am,” can turn into, “I am right to be miserable so I must get what I want.” The child then feels entitled and angry and is likely to hit and scream.
Dwelling on emotions can recreate them and make the child a believer in her own drama. When we “drown” in the story, we lead the child to devote more tantrums to defend similar scenarios again and again. The question is how to validate the child’s emotional experience without drowning with her. We want to encourage her to express herself freely with our attentive and caring listening; we don’t want to pump emotions that weren’t authentically hers. While connecting kindly, we must simultaneously open the door for her to feel resilient and able to move on with inner peace.
The source of pain is not what happens, but what the child says to herself about what happens, which she learns from us. Therefore, it is about doing our own work side by side with the child, learning to discover how our mind takes us for a ride and not pass this painful ride to the child. We don’t want to deny emotions, nor do we need to be unkind or controlling, but we do want to empower the child to discover joy and even gratitude in what is unchangeable.