Why we need to feel the hard feelings

I have developed this theory that whatever it is we are currently teaching our kids is also the lesson we need to learn ourselves.

Case in point: right now we are in the thick of two-year-old tantrums and BIG FEELINGS. If you’ve ever been around a two-year-old, you know that they really FEEL their feelings. They go from joyful and exuberant to stubborn and inconsolable in the blink of an eye. As parents, is our job to help them navigate this big, new, emotional world.

Watching my son as he experiences new emotions has made me realize that we as adults are actually quite terrible at dealing with our own feelings. Many of us have been taught to ignore or suppress our ‘bad’ feelings like sadness, anger and hurt. We’re taught to strive for happiness all of the time.

A lot of us shy away from big, hard feelings by shutting ourselves out and hiding from them. And maybe eating a bag of chips. 

A lot of us shy away from big, hard feelings by shutting ourselves out and hiding from them. And maybe eating a bag of chips. 

But the expectation that we should be happy all the time is unrealistic. It's poor advice that leads us instead to develop unhealthy methods of distracting ourselves from how we really feel. We check our phones. We overeat. We watch TV. We drink. We stay in a job that’s comfortable. All to avoid feeling the bigger feelings that are hard to deal with.

Personally, I've been feeling a range of big, hard, scary feelings as we get closer to a new baby and a big move later this year. I've found every distraction under the sun - from reorganizing my closet to wasting time on Instagram - to avoid facing those feelings head-on. 

But we need to remind ourselves that hard feelings are OK. They are a part of life.

When my son has a tantrum, more often than not I let him cry and yell as opposed to intervening. I do my best to give him the space to feel the hard feelings of the moment. And I find that when I do that, I am teaching myself the same lesson.

Because it would be easier and more comfortable for me to give into the two-year-old dictator’s demands. It’s easier to give him the phone, turn on the TV, give him the cookie, yell at him when he doesn’t listen. Those distractions will often times stop the crying and let my blood pressure go back down to normal. Now, I can’t sit here and say I never do those things. Because I do. And sometimes they are necessary (at least for me they are).

But I know that the more I sit with the uncomfortable feelings and let my son do the same, the more I’m teaching us both that it’s OK to feel things that are hard. They are just feelings. And they pass. And the more frequently I bump up against them, the more familiar I am with them, and the easier it is to handle them.  I’ll give you one recent example.

Everyday when I pick my son up from school we walk the same way home. And everyday we pass a small, local aquarium that my son insists on visiting (first we see the turtles, then the jellyfish, then the Nemo and Dory fishes, then the shark and stingray). By the time we arrive at the aquarium each day, he is usually a handful deep into his post-school snack. This is a relatively new routine for us, so the first time he approached the aquarium with snack in hand, I stopped him to explain we couldn’t bring food inside (aquarium rule :). He could finish his snack or save it for when we walked back outside.

You can probably guess, but he disliked both of his options. We stood outside of the aquarium for 15 minutes while he cried and yelled and insisted on walking inside with his snack. I let him cry and yell. I explained calmly why we couldn’t go inside with food. I felt frustrated, annoyed, and mildly embarrassed. While he was feeling whatever a two-year-old feels in this type of situation (I’m guessing SHEER OUTRAGE), I stood there feeling uncomfortable. I really just wanted to yank him out of there and keep walking and end the situation quickly. But soon enough, his tantrum subsided, he handed me his snack, and we walked inside and happily visited with our fish friends.

The next day on our same walk, we arrived at the aquarium and I braced myself for a meltdown. Instead, he stopped and stood outside, shoving fistfuls of raisins and cheerios into his mouth.  The sooner he finished his snack, the sooner he could see Dory.

So whether you're dealing with a fish-loving, two-year-old dictator, or any situation that brings up “big feelings”, can you try to sit there and just feel the feeling? Don’t dismiss it and don't distract yourself from it. Because the feelings will always be there. So we have to learn to live with them.

Catherine Ferguson