I was at the rock climbing wall at our gym the other day when I heard a little boy say to his dad, “I don’t know if I can do it. I’m scared.”He was referring to the route he was hoping to climb. His dad, who seemed relatively supportive and encouraging toward his son replied, “You can do it. Big boys don’t get scared.”
Although perhaps said with good intentions, this statement made me sigh and feel concerned about another generation of boys and men (and even girls and women) being taught that it isn’t okay to experience perceived “weaker”emotions. And more importantly, what they can do when these inevitable feelings do creep up.
Part of the reason it is so difficult to respond well when our children/friends/partners are experiencing difficult emotions (besides all of the gender messages we are socialized to adhere to) is that in order to be empathetic, we have to actually touch that part in ourselves that knows what it is like to feel that feeling. And that is scary! And what is more scary is to imagine your child feeling that, and so the easiest thing to do is brush it under the rug, dismiss or minimize the feeling, shame the feeling, or try to make them feel better. Unfortunately, this generally leads to the other person feeling like they are not heard, that their feelings don’t matter, that they should be ashamed of those feelings and are bad for having them, or that they need to keep their feelings to themselves in the future. And it generally intensifies the feeling while causing isolation.
I’m certain the father at the gym did not want for his response to his son to have any of these outcomes. Likely, he was wanting to help socialize his son to stereotypical gender norms that he learned (without even realizing it necessarily), and he probably honestly didn’t know how to respond. I did keep my mouth shut at the gym, but here are a few thoughts about how I hope to handle these conversations with my children and what you might do when your kids are experiencing painful or difficult emotions.
1. Because we are modeling emotion regulation for our children, it can be really helpful to walk them through our process.
Example: “I sometimes get scared, too. I remember when I was scared (give age
appropriate example). This is how I handled it (give healthy, age appropriate ideas about how to manage that emotion).
2. Simply validate the feeling. Nothing feels better than having someone acknowledge our emotions.
Example: “It does look scary! I would be scared in that situation, too!”
3. Listen and give your child time to talk about what they are experiencing. Having our feelings validated and being given space to talk through them can greatly lessen the intensity of the negative emotion.
Example: “I hear that you are scared. What are you most afraid of? What can I do to support you?”
If you feel like you might benefit from a little lesson on empathy and what it looks like, check out this great animated video based on the work of Brené Brown.