When our children are hurt either physically or psychologically, it can be unbearable for parents. In the case of emotional hurt, we want to rescue them, which is partly driven by our own helplessness at not being able to assuage their pain. We call the principal, yell at the teacher, complain to the parent of the child who dared to hurt them, not realizing that this solidifies their pain. It also fosters an inability to tolerate pain, both their own and that of others.
If we want our children to master their emotions, we have to teach them to surrender to what they are experiencing. This isn’t the same as getting sucked into our emotions or reacting. Surrender means we first accept whatever emotional state we are in. Thus we encourage our children to experience their feelings. We invite them to open a space up to allow the pain already present in them to have a presence in the room.
An example of what happens to a child when we don’t allow our children’s pain to have a presence is an eight-year-old, slightly overweight little girl with thick glasses, who was often teased or ostracized by her classmates. Acutely conscious of her looks, she tried hard to fit in by convincing her mother to buy her the latest clothes, bags, and shoes. Her mother, a fashionable young woman, was only too ready to indulge her. On those days this little girl came home and cried in her room for long periods, often refusing to eat or do her homework, her mother couldn’t bear it. She felt shame herself for her daughter’s physical appearance, which motivated her to buy her daughter a treadmill and hire a nutritionist, pushing her to exercise and eat fewer calories. She took her for regular hairdos and bought her contact lenses. Calling the school, she demanded a meeting with the teachers, asking that her daughter no longer be ostracized by her peers. Along with hiring a therapist to help them both cope, she started taking pills to calm her anxiety.
This mother’s inability to handle her child’s pain, let alone to help her child handle her own pain, denied this little girl the opportunity to feel her emotions. Instead of being allowed to feel hurt and disenfranchised, she was made to believe that if she changed her outer appearance enough, her peers would accept her. In this way, she was learning that painful emotions are too painful to deal with and need to be swept under the rug, or better still camouflaged by various forms of “doing,” such as blaming others or fixing her outer appearance. Because all effort was directed to squelching her pain and disguising it, with no effort made to sit with it, the daughter was incorrectly coming to believe that her external persona was more valid than her inner world of feelings. Of course, she most desperately needed the tools to handle rejection.
When our children are permitted to feel their feelings, they are able to release them amazingly quickly. They come out of the pain understanding that pain is just another sensation. The anticipation of the pain is often more intolerable than the actual pain. When our children experience their pain in its pure form, without fueling it with resistance or coloring it with a reaction, the pain transforms itself into wisdom and perspective.
Once their emotions have been processed, children feel no need to hold onto them long after they have passed in the way adults tend to do. They intuitively know that, like the ebb and flow of the ocean, pain comes in waves—and just as it comes, it also leaves. The reason we adults feel like it stays forever is that our thoughts have become embroiled in it based on a vestige from the past. It’s in the mind that the pain continues to exist, not in the actual situation. This is because we don’t let go
Part of our problem is that we are unused to handling pain alone. We would much rather project our pain onto others, roping them into our emotional drama through guilt, blame, or anger. Or we resort to an unhealthy habit, perhaps overindulging in food, alcohol, working out, drugs, or medication. In these and other ways, we seek to manage our pain by channeling it externally, which in the long run perpetuates it. The antidote is to sit with ourselves and become a witness to our pain, knowing well that the pain originates from our attachment to our ego.
Once our children learn to accept pain as a natural and inevitable part of life, they don’t fear it so much, but simply acknowledge, “I’m in pain right now.” Instead of intellectualizing about it, judging it, or resisting it, they sit with it. We teach them this by sitting with them when they are young. If they need to talk, they will talk, and all that’s required from us is the acknowledgment of a nod, or a statement such as, “I see.” There’s no need for logic, cheerleading, or hurrying through the experience. Just allow it a space in the house. Also, if the pain stays a while, we make it a matter-of-fact experience, keeping all drama out of it. Perhaps we might talk about it in terms of “a thing,” with colors, different appetites, and moods. Above all, we don’t aspire that our children become “happy” despite their pain. Rather, we aspire that they be authentic.