This morning, my three year old daughter susannah had a cry. It was over a strawberry. It was my fault entirely, I wasn’t thinking. I know perfectly well that she receives huge pleasure from biting into the biggest strawberry in the punnet. Yet I cut it in two. She is very expressional, (I try to encourage that, being an very sensitive human being myself, I am well aware that my children might be the same way), so when her large brown eyes fill up with tears and she looks at me I say: “Oh Susannah, are you sad because I cut the big strawberry?” She nods frantically and the tears race down her cheeks. I give her a cuddle and add: “I am so sorry! I know you like the big ones and I cut it up! How silly I am to forget.” Susannah replies: (as her eyes start welling up again) “Yes because now it isn’t big or massive anymore it’s small and there are no more big ones left.” Her feelings have been acknowledged, she is now on the mend- I know what I have to do to uplift things completely. I pick up the strawberry halves and put them in my eyes and say “Ahhh but with two pieces I can be mrs strawberry eyes! (I put on a funny voice) “Hello- pleased to meet you, I’m mrs Strawberry eyes!” Susannah’s tears subside and her face is now filled with glee and she jumps off her chair and asks me to hand her the strawberry pieces. She imitates me and laughs so much even the twins join in with the giggles. What could have been a huge meltdown has been turned around into fun and silliness.
This technique works most of the time and it is rare that Susannah has any kind of giant meltdown. If it does happen it is usually because I am irritable so not thinking properly about how she’s feeling. This is the key really. I hear myself saying on some days (for example) “Susannah, it’s just a strawberry and you are going to eat it anyway so who cares. Just eat it and be quiet.” This will upset her enormously and quite rightly really; by saying that, I have basically told her that what she is feeling is irrelevant and she should feel what I tell her to.
But who am I to devalue a person’s emotions like that?
The thing I think is so important, and that is so easy for any of us to forget is how small our children’s worlds are compared to ours. Susannah knows nothing about hunger or war or financial stress. Susannah is usually thinking about drawing or clothes or riding her bike. That strawberry and the complete excitement of biting into it’s giant, juicy shape was a big part of her morning. It probably is equal to the excitement I feel when the weather is warm for the first time all year. Cutting it up was like a wind and hail storm arriving just as I make plans and pack a picnic to enjoy the lovely weather. Horribly disappointing and ultimately changes my plans ahead.
I remember when Jim (the eldest of my three younger brothers) and I were about four and three years old and we were driving home from somewhere. Our mum promised us that we could stop at Little Chef on the way for some dinner. We were ecstatic! Not only did this prospect contain the adventure of eating out, but we were also given a lollipop after we had finished by that particular chain of restaurant. That was probably going to be the best thing that was to occur on that day, or possibly for all of that week. Sadly, we fell asleep in the car and mum didn’t want to wake us. I will never forget the overwhelming sensations of sadness, regret, disappointment and anger this (what felt to me was a tragedy) sparked for me. The devastation I experienced in that moment from missing out felt as painful as a break up. That’s how big it was to me. Because my world was so much smaller that it is now. But that shouldn’t mean my emotions were any less valid. It’s just different things that triggered them. As my world grew, so did my ability to control my responsiveness as have the things that make me respond. That’s what I try to remember when I think my children are over-reacting.
How often do you hear parents say “It’s not a big deal”, “Get over it,” “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill,” “There are far bigger things in life to worry about” and that kind of thing? But if we think about it, children react to things just like we do, except they have not yet learnt to understand these intense feelings or how to manage them. So how do these phrases help a child determine these things?! I think reacting to a child this way teaches a child that to feel is incorrect and to be ignored. How incredibly lonely we would all be if we were all treated this way?
Even as adults, we expect a certain emotional etiquette from each other in everyday life. We belittle the way others feel just because we don’t accept that it’s reasonable to feel a particular way over a particular thing. If we don’t share the reaction, we discount it. Surely that is the gateway to depression? Feeling isolated with our emotions.
You know that other expression “life is hard”. Couldn’t we, instead of using it to shut others up and expect them to deal with their challenging emotions in silence, use that as a reminder of how we all find things difficult at times? As a way to unite us as human beings and normalise any negative reactions to the everyday struggle we call life? Why is being sad, angry, lonely, disappointed is nothing to be ashamed of. We all feel this way from time to time and we all have our own reasons. Let’s stop expecting everyone to respond the way we think they should. Let’s accept their responses as theirs and be there for them.
Muzz and I have been together 7 years so we have had long time to grow together and understand how the other deals with certain things. Muzz’s family are some of the most wonderful people I have ever known and I am so thrilled to have them as family now. But they are not emotional. That is of course acceptable! Everyone deals with things in their own ways. But Muzz did not understand how sensitive and over emotional I am as a person because he had never really seen it before. It does not take a lot to make me burst into tears and at first Muzz would often resort to telling me to ‘dry up’. I am very over the top so you could hardly blame him. Sometimes I just get sad about how beautiful things are and how people let the exquisiteness pass them by. Did you ever read ‘the secret life of bees’? There was a character in that story called May Boatright- she would feel such heartache that she would write about it in little notes and hide them in a wall at the end of the garden. I am like a (slightly less dramatic) version of her. I feel so deeply and care so much it is a stirring. It keeps me awake. It is a pumping through my body that could quite frankly tip me over the edge if I didn’t monitor it frequently. Not everyone experiences emotions this intense on a daily basis, many people simply react to particular circumstances. And that’s what we like to expect from people, a bloody good reason to feel something. But why? To feel something is not a choice, it just is. So with time, Muzz learned to tolerate and relate to that side of me. And I have figured out many distractions to keep me from spending an unhealthy amount of time on one particular emotion. Tit for tat. And perhaps we could all think about limiting how much we compare ourselves to each other. Muzz has accepted that I am very extreme emotionally and I have accepted that he isn’t all the time. Both are common and respectable.
I spoke to a doctor recently that gave a good analogy for how people deal with their feelings. He said that not everyone in concentration camps experienced depression, but most people did. Meaning of course that in one of the most extremely bleak scenarios imaginable, still some people cope mentally, and others don’t even need to be in a severe situation to fall apart. We all have our breaking points and we don’t choose where they are. Conclusively, there is no right or wrong to these feelings, they just are and we should all try to respect what another person might be going through emotionally, even if we don’t understand it.
And when it comes to our children, I think we should do this will bells on. Surely it will help them develop a healthy understanding of their own emotions and a compassionate approach to others. If we can normalise their emotions by acknowledging how they are feeling and allowing them to talk about it then it will be easier for them to work out how to anticipate these feelings and cope with them. Often, that is all any of us need to feel instantly uplifted. Time, respect and compassion from the people around us.