Why Are We So Scared of Big Feelings?


a guest post by Shaheen Merali

We’ve all been there. Our son or daughter (or perhaps both!) has burst into tears, or better yet, begun a mighty tantrum, and we just want it to STOP. So we pull out a whole army of tricks – shushing: “Shh, shh, it’s OK, it’s just a small…”, ignoring: “I’m not going to talk to you until you stop crying and start using your proper words”, explaining: “But you know that if you don’t brush your teeth they will rot, remember we talked about it? You brushed really well yesterday, why is it such a big deal today, it is the same…”, anger: “Enough! Stop crying now!”, and distraction: “Oh look, there’s a bird!” and I’m not sure what to call this last one (here have something to fill your mouth so you can’t cry?) but let’s call it bribery: “Here, have a sweet, it will make you feel better.”

A full range of human emotionIf we take a closer look at these, do these tactics even really work? I mean, long term work? I know, personally speaking, shushing and ignoring just makes them cry and fuss even louder! Explaining doesn’t work when they clearly are not taking it in, and just frustrates us even more, and distraction may work short term, but lo and behold they will be back with more tears about something else very soon! The last one’s my favourite – I always wonder what would happen if every time they were feeling sad, someone said, “Aww it’s OK, here have a samosa, it will make you feel better!” Lots of comfort eating, obesity and heart disease, that’s what!

As you may have guessed by the tone of the article so far, stopping emotions should not really be our aim! Emotions, especially heavy ones like sadness, anger and worry, are like stones in an imaginary backpack. If we don’t let them out, they will weigh us – and our children – down. If, on the other hand, we welcome the emotion and stay close by and loving while our children cry and tantrum, we are helping to provide a safe place for them to really feel it…and then let it go. Once released, the backpack is so much lighter and the change is obvious in our children – they are lighter, more loving, more cooperative and just happier overall.

To use another analogy, if things are kept bottled in, it can result in explosions of rage when the pressure gets too much. Alternatively, if left in the bottle for too long, things can get flat and tasteless; in other words, anxiety or depression is the result. What we want is the middle range, where there is a bit of a fizz and sparkle! This is life in its essence – with emotions, good and bad.

If you don’t believe me, think back to when you last had a cry. When things got too much, and you just couldn’t hold it back anymore and you sobbed your heart out. How did you feel after? Most likely, you felt lighter and more able to deal with things again. There is a reason it is called a ‘good’ cry! So while we hold on to that, let us be able to offer that to our children too.

Studies have looked at the components of different types of tears – happy tears, sad tears, even tears when cutting onions! What they found was that in tears of sadness and upset, and only in this type of tears, a hormone called cortisol was present in the tears. Cortisol is a stress hormone. Therefore when our children cry, they are effectively releasing stress from their bodies.

When we prevent them from crying, however, by any of those tactics above – or perhaps even a combination of them! – we are effectively containing the stress within the body, which inevitably can have a detrimental effect.

In fact, there is a whole brain science behind this thinking. I won’t go into the details but to put it simply, there are two parts of the brain – the upstairs brain (which is to do with thinking, rationale, and short-term memory), and the downstairs brain (which holds out emotions and long-term memories). The upstairs brain is what we all want our children to be operating from, but when the downstairs brain is flooded with emotions, this part of the brain actually switches completely off. This is why you can talk to your children until you’re blue in the face, but none of it will actually sink in! The flood needs to be released (i.e. tears), and when and only when the downstairs brain is clear, will the upstairs ones start working again.

So why is it that we want those big feelings to go away, and why is it that crying or tantrums irk us so much? A big part of it may be how our own feelings were dealt with when we were younger – we tend to parent the way we were parented and often they too did not know how to deal with big feelings, and so used all the above tactics also. After all, all this research was not necessarily around then and was definitely not as accessible.

This leads to another big reason why we can’t handle crying and tears. If we intrinsically believe that big feelings and emotions are not okay, then naturally we see it as our duty to keep our children happy all the time. Any sign of upset by them is taken very personally by us – that WE have done something wrong that they should be crying or tantrumming like this, and therefore we try and stop them so that they (and we) feel fine again. What I love about Parenting by Connection, however, is the philosophy that it IS okay to feel sad, or angry and to cry and grieve; it is natural and actually very healthy! That’s why when our children do this, there is no need to stop it, but simply to let it flow and run its course, while we support them through it.

Shaheen Merali, Certified Parenting by Connection Instructor, London

Shaheen Merali is a certified Parenting by Connection instructor in London who holds regular classes to teach the tools of this philosophy to other mums. For more information, email her or follow her on Facebook.



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