We have ALL been there. You hand them the red plate, but they wanted the green plate. Or it was kid #1's turn to open the door and #2 got to it first. Or perhaps a favorite dress is still in the wash and is unavailable for its third wear this week. Whatever it is, it all goes wrong at just the right time and your child melts into a pile of tears on the floor.
And you want to be a good mom.
And the parenting books all insist we should validate our children's emotions.
But something inside you insists that it doesn't matter what color your plate is! And maybe, just maybe, if you had put your shoes on the first time I asked YOU would have won the race to the door. And for goodness' sake, you must get dressed child.
An internal conflict arises between wanting to validate our children's emotions and wanting to teach them that life doesn't give us every desire on a silver platter.
Here are a few thoughts to mull over that can help you navigate this internal conflict...
#1 Focus on the emotion, not the reason for the emotion
When children are in that two to four year old stage, I spend most of their emotional break downs internally laughing about how absurd this particular issue is. No, my sweet child …
you can't spend your life crying about red plates.
you can't lose your mind every time your friend wins a race.
you really can't expect me to pour more syrup for you... you just licked 5 days worth of calories off your pancakes.
My usual go-to for these issues is to focus on the feeling of disappointment. Being disappointed is HARD.
Who do you go to when you have big emotions? The person who has an answer and a solution? The person who tells you how ridiculous this will all seem when you get a bit older? Or the person who gives good hugs and a nonjudgmental shoulder?
#2 Connect before you correct
Let's say your child has a favorite pair of kicks. You should have left 5 minutes ago and no one can find the left shoe. All the big emotions are surfacing and you really need to get in the car. FIRST, validate the feeling. Something along the lines of, "I really hate when I can't find my favorite things and I don't have time to think about a perfect alternative."
It is sooooo tempting to jump straight to, "That's why I leave my shoes in the same place every day." Avoid it as often as you can, though.
You don't sound like you are sharing sage advice. You sound like "that guy" at the party.
It doesn't help your child get out of their brainstem... Solving problems is not a forte of the fight or flight mechanisms.
Validate their big emotions and ask if they need help coming up with a solution. Give a big hug and take a deep breath with your kiddo. (If you are running late, chances are good you both could use a bit of grounding!)
If your child continues crying AFTER you have connected, feel free to say, "Tears are understandable, but they are not a solution. Find a pair of shoes. Now please." Validating emotion does not mean accepting all behavior.
Let the teaching moment happen when you get home from the day's adventure. "We want to be super successful the next time we leave the house. Where can we leave our shoes to help that happen?"
#3 Manage Expectations
If your child really, really, really likes the red plate, for the love of sanity, get a second red plate.
You may have heard it said that expectations are the root of disappointment. As much as possible, have a clear line between the things that "always happen" and the things that "always change".
Unaware adults can accidentally steal all consistency and freedom of choice from their kiddos, and that isn't a very nice thing to do. IF you can find those things that mean a lot to your child, and keep them consistent, then you will find they are more willing to tolerate the differing needs of each day. Some evenings your child may go to dance, and sometimes soccer, or a friend's house, or church... and EACH of these activities require a massively different play list for your child to navigate. So by all means, start each night with dinner on a consistent plate if that particular consistency matters to your child.
If you have no intention of letting the red plate be an issue, though, DON'T give the child a red plate four days in a row. All children can handle a different colored plate each time they sit down to the table IF they don't expect the plate to be the same.
Manage your child's expectations and you will proactively manage their disappointments.
#4 Tell the truth as playfully as possible
A few years back, when my grandmother was still young and mischievous, I was bemoaning some work issue or another. (Her eyes would get this gleam in them whenever her whit and tongue were about to be released.) I don't know if Granny was aware of the term "first world problems" but she knew the phenomenon intimately. She raised six babies under conditions that make my life look like a queen's.
Granny was a beautiful soul. Big emotions were always met with love, even though I can see with hindsight how my "adult" problems sounded quite a bit like a fuss over a red plate to her.
She didn't let me slip into that "poor me" space. She found funny ways to let me know when my problems were big enough to be problems, and when I needed to fix my sights on my own insignificance.
Granny knew how to separate a feeling from the reason for the feeling. She was comforting. But she was also wickedly accurate at assessing how I could solve this problem with the hands and feet God gave me. Here is what I know thanks to her and a fabulous set of parents-
I am always worthy of love AND I am always strong enough to be told the truth. I am strong enough to handle this, strong enough to fix it, and strong enough to avoid the problem in the future. Don't let trendy magazine pop psyche confuse you. NOTHING is more validating than a person who is certain you are strong enough to handle your own problems. My child, this is the hand you have been dealt today, and you are strong enough to play it.
#5 Teach your children about resentment
There are few things as dangerous to the human heart as resentment, and it is born when we mismanage our disappointments.
Teach your children how to assertively stand up for themselves, because sometimes we are disappointed for a good reason. Sometimes people are not doing what they should and our internal sense of justice knows it. The home is the perfect place to learn how to stand square, look another person straight in the eye and say, "That wasn't nice. I don't want you to do that to me."
But sometimes disappointment is a result of our own immaturity. Work to create a family culture that includes growth mentality, a heavier focus on responsibilities than freedoms, and an understanding of history and the diversity of the human experience.
Your instincts are right. It IS important for your child to know that life isn't fair so you can't get hung up about most things. Validating your child during their struggles is important, but it is also important give them the gifts of self awareness, historical insight, and perseverance.
If your child holds the belief that friends never disagree, they will struggle doubly when it happens.
If your child doesn't develop a growth mindset, anything other than coming in first can be regarded as a cheating opponent, blind referee or incompetent coach.
If your child expects their body to only ever be comfortable, almost all weather will affect their mood.
Expectation is the root of disappointment. Ruminating on disappointments breeds resentment. Resentment is a poison.
Your child MUST learn that disappointment happens. Don't be afraid to let them feel disappointed. (Copy and paste that with all other uncomfortable emotions.) Just be there with a big hug when it happens so they realize it isn't the end of the world.
I hope our journey inspires your own,
Buckets & Berries