Joy and pain

Teaching a child to experience a range of emotions may lead to happiness

Teaching a child to experience a range of emotions may lead to happiness

June 25, 2004|by LISA PREJEAN

Your child falls on the playground and skins his knee.

He comes to you limping and crying.

You look at the wound and tell him it's going to be OK - it hurts now, but it will get better.

After some attention, a kiss and a hug, he'll bound away knowing he's not in any real danger.

Imagine if you had panicked when your child came to you.

A parent who cannot remain calm sends the wrong message to a child, says Rob Goldblatt, a clinical psychologist and author of the book, "The Boy Who Didn't Want to Be Sad."

A parent's emotional outburst makes a child think, "I've got to behave in a way to keep her chilled out. I've got to manage her and her emotions."


The child learns to deny his feelings.

When parents aim for perfection - their child never getting hurt, always being first or never breaking the rules - the outcome often is the opposite of what the parent wanted.

Keeping children from pain and sadness doesn't ensure their happiness.

On the contrary, experiencing the unpleasant parts of life enables us to truly appreciate the wonderful things life has to offer.

"Being able to embrace life's ups and downs makes people content," Goldblatt says. "Regardless of what happens, they feel safe."

He believes parents can teach children to be happy by using a three-step response.

The bare-bones of his philosophy is:

1. I get it.

2. I care.

3. I'm here.

When a child is going through a painful or sad time, listen to what he has to say. Don't make assumptions. Ask questions. This is the "I get it" step.

Then show the child that you can relate. Perhaps you felt the same way when you were that age. Help him to solve problems. This is the "I care" step.

Next, sit with the child until the emotions fade a bit.

"You don't go away," Goldblatt says. "You don't move on to something else."

This is the "I'm here" step.

Parents need to consider a child's perspective.

We often view life as a series of tasks to complete. We rush from here to there, and it seems like everything a child does is just an obstacle to getting somewhere on time.

That line of thinking changes the quality of the experience.

One day Goldblatt was rushing through the grocery store with his 2-year-old son. He was just picking up a few items when his son decided to swing from freezer door to freezer door.

Goldblatt's first instinct was to fuss his son and hurry him along, but he decided instead to play along.

"Are you being a monkey?" Goldblatt asked.

His son confirmed that suspicion, and they laughed together about his antics as they left the store.

"I'm enjoying him, and he's enjoying me, instead of him being frustrated with me and me viewing him as an obstacle," Goldblatt says.

Those kinds of experiences teach children that it's important to connect and have fun with the people you love.

Some of the most meaningful times happen when things go wrong.

Once Goldblatt's daughter's helium balloon slipped out of her hand as he was fumbling with his keys. Instead of rushing her through that painful experience, he related to her hurt.

"That happens with balloons," he told her.

They stood on the doorstep, watching the balloon and waving goodbye to it.

Parents need to help their children learn how to handle uncomfortable feelings and not to push them away, Goldblatt says.

His message is for grandparents, too.

"These things don't stop when your kids are little," he says.

If you want to be close to your children, share your feelings.

"Keep reaching out to your family," Goldblatt says. "Listening, showing you care and getting it works when they're 3 or 33."

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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