What do you do with a child with big feelings? Especially if you are a parent who has never had similarly big feelings?
Yes, I am the parent with feelings that don’t get expressed through tears or exuberance or anger very often. And, yes, Marilee is the child with big feelings. A typical day can include arms stretched wide with ebullient joy and glowering in the general direction of any human being who dares to enter her line of sight.
Children and Big Feelings
Last week contained multiple events that evoked big feelings. First, there was the soccer debacle. Peter and I allowed Marilee to play on two soccer teams this fall, somewhat against our own principles, because they needed players and she loves competitive team sports and who knows how long they’ll get to run around and play outside so let’s take advantage while it lasts and we’re still getting over our own overachieving ways and all that.
The first weekend, we told her she couldn’t go to her game on Sunday because it conflicted with church. She glowered and cried. We stood firm. Then her Saturday game was canceled due to a COVID conflict. She glowered and cried. We stood firm.
Then we were supposed to go pick up our new kitten on Tuesday, but we were told we needed to wait another few days because the kitten’s eyes were runny. I told Marilee we’d go on Saturday instead. She cried a bit, but she understood— until the next morning she realized that the reason we were going on Saturday was my schedule, not the kitten’s availability. “I’ve been waiting FIVE YEARS for a kitten and you are making me wait FOUR MORE DAYS!!!”
The glowering and crying amped right up. I stayed calm and tried to be empathetic without changing my plans for the week.
Then two more soccer games were canceled because of COVID.
And then the kitten was exposed to ringworm.
If I didn’t believe in God, I would say that the universe had something to teach Marilee about dealing with disappointment.
More so, God had something to teach me about loving a child through disappointment.
Loving a Child Through Big Feelings
Here’s what I realized. I have two instincts when one of our children (or someone else I love) is facing hardship. Either I want to fix the problem or I want to dismiss/minimize their feelings.
In Marilee’s case, I knew I couldn’t fix the problem of COVID. But I could go back on our word about church. Or I could change my schedule and get the kitten a few days earlier. But to do either of those things would be to sacrifice values we hold dear as a family—that we are committed to a faith community together, that Mom has needs too.
Once I decided not to fix the problems, I really wanted to change her feelings. I wanted to be dismissive of her and explain how her problems compare to all the other “real” problems in the world. Truth be told, there was that really low moment in the midst of this saga when she refused to give me a hug goodnight, so I slammed the door to her bedroom and she yelled, “Please don’t slam my door,” and I yelled, “Please don’t be a jerk!” and then she wept again, and I felt terrible.
BUT other than that, I did a lot of praying that I could stay with her in her disappointment. I didn’t try to fix it. I also didn’t try to minimize it. I just tried to be with her in the midst of it.
On Friday morning, she woke up early with a stomach ache. Sad about the lack of a kitten and the lack of a soccer game. Sad about having to go to school in the midst of it all. Ready for a hug and a snuggle. Hoping for a Mom who would say she should stay home from school instead of a Mom who held her close and then said, “Let’s go get ready for the day.”
But then she said, “I’m deciding to have a positive attitude. I’m still sad about the kitten. I don’t want to go to school today. But I know you’re going to make me go, so I might as well think positive thoughts about it.”
She went to school. She had a great day. She got to play in two soccer games. And we brought Peppa home.
We are both growing up.
To go further with Amy Julia:
- Love is Stronger Than Fear | Season 3—White Picket Fences
- When Grace Runs Dry
- Continuing the Conversation: Marilee and Ruby Bridges
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