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Supporting children through their sadness can be challenging. It is often hard to hear our sweet child say ‘‘I’m sad my friend is moving away” or “I’m sad because a kid at school didn’t want to play with me”. Words like “I’m sad the holiday is over” or “I’m sad my favourite teacher is retiring” can be difficult to hear.
Please note: the following article does not address prolonged sadness
And it sometimes happens that when our child comes to us saying ‘I’m sad that…’, we often ‘but’ them, saying things like:
‘I know, BUT you’re gonna visit your friend next month’ when their friend is moving away.
‘I see, BUT we’re gonna have another holiday in 3 months’ time’ when they are sad because the holiday ended.
‘Yeah, BUT at least you were lucky to have them teach you’ when they are sad knowing they will miss their teacher.
‘Oh, BUT I’m sure you have other kids you can play with at school’ when they feel rejected.
What makes us react this way to our child’s sadness?
We BUT them because it’s hard, difficult, even painful for us, to witness their sadness. And we equate sadness with not feeling good. And because we love our children, we want them to feel good, therefore not sad.
So when they come to us and share their sadness, we want to quickly rescue them from it. And we’ll ‘but’ them, trying to bring something ‘positive’ into the picture, something that we hope will make the sadness go away!
It makes sense to want to rescue them from sadness if, for us, sadness is a difficult emotion to handle.
It can feel really uncomfortable to be around their sadness, to embrace it, and just allow it to be if it’s difficult for us to sit with our own sadness when we experience it.
If, while growing up…
we weren’t allowed to feel sad.
we weren’t allowed to express our sadness.
we didn’t feel safe when sad.
our well-intended parents were quick to ‘but’ us and save us from our sadness.
… it might mean that we barely got a chance to sit with sadness. Allow it to be. Allow ourselves to feel and experience it. Notice that we’re ok, we can survive sadness, and we can come out the other side just fine.
So now we are trying to rescue our children from their sadness.
Yet when we do that, we are sending unintended messages to our children.
One of them is that they shouldn’t actually be feeling sad. They’ll get to see their friend next month and they’ll have another holiday in 3 months’ time, so no need to be sad.
This is invalidating and leaves children feeling wrong, misunderstood, and/or alone. It can also lead to them not reaching out for support when they are sad, because ‘those around me will just try to explain to me why I shouldn’t actually be sad’ or ‘I’ll be made to feel like there’s something wrong with me if I’m sad about this.’
Also, by being quick to rescue them, we are telling our kids that sadness is something unsafe, something scary, something they need to run away from, a feeling humans need to be rescued from: ‘Sadness is a dangerous feeling, you need to get out of it quickly, I’ll save you!’ is what reaches them.
Yet sadness isn’t dangerous or unsafe.
Sadness is a feeling. It has no moral value, it’s not ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and all humans are allowed to have whatever feelings they have. Yes, sadness might be a feeling that’s a bit more difficult to handle than others, but we can still be safe when we are sad.
So what do they actually need us to say, if anything?
How should we handle our children’s sadness?
We can simply acknowledge and validate their sadness, with a warm tone:
‘I know you are sad.’
‘No wonder you are sad, you love your friend.’
‘It’s ok to be sad.’
We can also offer them our listening ear, ‘Tell me more.’
And that’s all. Because sadness isn’t something to be rescued from. And we learn how to navigate it, accept it, and stay with it, allowing it to go through our body, by being validated and by being held.
It’s beautiful to see our children reach out to us when they are sad. That is a great skill and hopefully, they will continue to do so as they grow older – continue to reach out to those around them when things are difficult, instead of withdrawing or pushing down their feelings.
How can I be comfortable around sadness?
Our kids also need us to be comfortable around their feelings. This allows us to create the safety they need to navigate sadness. It also makes it safe for them to continue to reach out when they have all sorts of feelings, instead of worrying ‘oh, but my parent will freak out/be overwhelmed/not know what to do, so I won’t go to them.’
“But this is so hard to do, it hurts to see my child sad! How can I be comfortable around their sadness?”
I hear you, and this is a very valid question.
The first step to take would be to just notice how hard it is for you and not to force yourself into feeling differently about sadness. You deserve kindness, compassion, and knowing that there’s nothing wrong with you regardless of what you feel about sadness.
It might then help to find someone who can really listen to you with respect, trust, and non-judgemental.
If this isn’t an option at the moment, you can start journaling.
Either way, you can try to go back to those moments in your childhood when you felt sad, pick a moment, a situation, maybe the first time you remember being sad: how did the adults around you handle your sadness? How did it feel to you? How did their reaction land for you? What would you have needed in those moments?
Going through your childhood memories around sadness is a great place to start on this journey of embracing sadness instead of fighting it.
Once you start to feel more comfortable with your own sadness, it will become easier and more natural to embrace your child’s as well, and hold space for them as they navigate this feeling.
What about children’s books about sadness?
If you want to support your child to befriend sadness while you work on your own feelings around it, here are some lovely books that present sadness as a safe emotion instead of a scary ‘we need to run away from’ emotion.
You can click on the images below to be taken to amazon.co.uk and look inside the books.
I hope this article has been useful to you, feel free to share it with other parents or leave a comment below to share your thoughts, I’d love to hear them.
Also, if you would like to talk about your kid’s sadness, receive one-to-one support as you navigate this topic, or if you have any concerns and would like to talk to a certified parenting instructor, feel free to contact me or book a free consultation with me.