Seeing your kids be sad is hard. You want to fix it. Make it go away. Make it better. When they’re young, it’s mostly easy to do. A snuggle or a snack or a nap can go a long way.
But as they get older, their feelings get more complicated and, as a result, so do the solutions.
I expected some of these “milestones.” This year I sent my oldest to kindergarten and I had plenty of opportunities to witness complicated new feelings that came from new rules and schedules and friends and norms. What I didn’t expect was the day I realized that it was no longer my responsibility to take care of her feelings.
Suddenly my being really good at snuggling away sadnesses and hurts didn’t do her any good. Because I wasn’t there for so many of them. What she needed now was for me to help her learn to navigate those feelings on her own. And then for me to stand back and let her do it. Even when it meant watching her struggle.
Luckily for me, my daughter has plenty of feelings so we have many opportunities to practice. For example, she spends two evenings a week and every other weekend with her dad. It’s been that way since she was two—she doesn’t remember anything else. And while we’ve always had brief periods of time during which she has been sad about missing one parent or the other, it has recently become somewhat of a trend.
Typically it is only an issue at bedtime, so I suspect that exhaustion plays a role as much as anything. But here is the typical pattern: when she is with her dad, she misses me. When she is with me, she misses her dad. Also, she occasionally begs for slumber parties with her grandma. When she finally gets one, she misses me.
Now I can totally empathize with missing someone. And I did empathize for a long, long time. However, the trend has become so consistent (a.k.a. daily) in the last few weeks that I can’t help but think it isn’t so much a matter of “missing” someone as a pattern of just being unhappy with the situation no matter what.
What do you do when your child gets what they wanted and still finds something else to be unhappy about?
I don’t have the answer. So we talked about it. I told her that there would always be people in her life that she wanted to be with and couldn’t. That there would always be something she wanted and couldn’t have. And that it was OK to be sad about those things. But that we needed to learn how to be sad and still be OK so that we didn’t spend all our time focusing on what we didn’t have. Because then we would miss all the opportunities to be grateful for what we did have.
I told her that it wasn’t always easy to focus on something else when you felt sad. But that your brain is like a muscle you can train to be grateful rather than focus on the negative. So we had to practice and try, even if it felt hard. Even if it wasn’t easy.
The next evening at bedtime she cried and missed her dad. I sat by her bed for a long time and encouraged her to remember all the things she had to be grateful for and to think about those things.
But nothing seemed to help.
And I had to remind myself—her feelings are hers to have, and it is OK for her to feel sad or to miss someone, whether it is because she is tired or not. I can teach her ways to navigate her sadness and I can do my best to help her cultivate a practice of gratitude but I cannot make her use my strategies and I cannot make her sadness go away for her.
And it isn’t easy. I spent the first five years of her life learning how hard it is to take care of another human. But, as it turns out, it’s nothing compared to how hard it is to let her go and teach her to take care of herself.
I suppose in that way, just as the brain is a muscle we can train, so is the heart. As much as my heart wants to keep her little, so that her troubles stay small enough for me to hug away, I know cannot. So instead I choose to stand beside her while she struggles and learns. Even if it feels hard. Even if it isn’t easy.