a hurt is a hurt is a hurt

Scene from Kramer vs. Kramer

Scene from Kramer vs. Kramer

Nothing brings us running faster to our child’s side than when they get hurt.  Not just a little scratch on the knee kind of hurt, but a howling writhing pain. Especially if there is blood. There’s something in our primitive brain that kicks in, gets the adrenaline going, and gets us moving toward our child to offer support.

Remember the scene in the movie Kramer vs. Kramer where Dustin Hoffman’s character, Ted Kramer, sprints across town in a panic clutching his injured son? (Of course you don’t, that was before your time…but rent it sometime…it’s worth a watch). If you are a parent, there’s no way you can watch that scene and not have your heart in your throat because this is one of our deepest fears….that something will happen to our child.

But what happens when our child experiences a different kind of hurt?  An emotional hurt?  Where, instead of blood, there are lots of tears, or screaming, or angry outbursts.  Most of us aren’t so quick to move toward our child to soothe these kinds of hurts.  Instead we move in the opposite direction, or send our child away, to “get it under control.”

Why do we move toward physical pain….and move away from emotional pain?  It’s a question worth pondering, don’t you think?

Consider the research of psychologists Geoff MacDonald and Mark Leary who have found that the brain regions involved in experiencing physical pain are the same areas involved in experiencing emotional pain. (In their research the emotional pain is in the form of social rejection.) This means that the same area of your child’s brain that lights up with activity when he takes a spill on his bike also lights up when he gets in a heated fight with his sister.

There’s a theory that as we evolved into more emotional social beings, evolution “borrowed” the physical pain neural circuitry already present to also detect and send emotional distress signals to the brain.  Why create a whole new neural system when one’s already in place, right?

So if the same brain region fires whether the pain is physical or emotional, perhaps we should reconsider our attitude toward the emotional kind of pain. Our child’s brain doesn’t seem to know the difference between the two. To the brain, a hurt is a hurt is a hurt.  Maybe it’s too much to send our child into isolation to deal with intense emotions…just like we wouldn’t send him to his room to deal with a broken arm. Maybe we should attempt to soothe emotional pain with the same gusto we attempt to soothe physical pain.

♥♥♥LOVE IN ACTION♥♥♥

The next time your child has a meltdown, try this. Remain calm yourself. Then move toward your child and be the container for those big emotions. Soothe the emotional hurt with empathy and understanding

WTF?

little kid cryingBe honest.  What’s your first reaction when your child walks over and knocks down the Lego tower her brother has just spent the last ten minutes building? Or how about when your son is flipping like a fish in the grocery store aisle because you said no to the sugary cereal—again?

Let me guess.  Do you yell?  Do you put her in time-out?  Do you lecture, threaten, punish?  All of the above?  Do you casually push your cart past the melt-down in the cereal aisle pretending you don’t know the small creature writhing about?

Trust me, I know how difficult it is to keep yourself together when you child is “misbehaving” or “losing it.”  Not too long ago, it wasn’t uncommon, while Krogering, for the manager to open a special check-out line just for me in order to expedite getting me and my screaming banshee out of there!

But what I have found over the years is that the strategies listed above have several unintended results. Namely, (a) they tend to exacerbate the problem instead of solve it (especially with a strong-willed child), (b) they don’t help the child think about what they’ve done…or why…or how they might solve the problem differently next time, and (c) they don’t help parents feel competent and effective.

What I suggest instead is to get curious.  WTF?  What’s The Feeling being displayed through the behavior?  What emotion is your child acting out?  And then “name it to tame it” as child neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel says.

Help your child start to develop emotional literacy by guessing what he’s feeling and naming it:

“You sound very very frustrated.”
“You are so angry that you can’t have the cereal you want.”

Then validate the feeling by saying something like:

“It’s hard to really really want something and not be able to have it.”
“I know.  I hate it too when I can’t have what I want.”

WTN? Then guess What’s the Need underneath the feeling?  Often it’s a need for autonomy, for choice.  You can relate to that, right?  Don’t you also like having autonomy and choice in your life?  There’s nothing wrong with our children wanting that too.

It’s healthy to let them have as much choice as they can handle for their age.  And it’s also okay to set a loving limit when there are some choices that we decide are non-negotiable (like choices that have to do with safety, well-being, and health).

Then instead of trying to manage their behavior, spend that energy building your skill in being able to hold the limit and also hold your child’s intense feelings in response to the limit.  This can be hard to do, but it will help your child to develop insight into his own inner emotional life and, as he matures, to be able to problem-solve and find other ways to meet needs.

I invite you to develop the art of curiosityWhat’s the Feeling?  What’s the Need?   Developing honest curiosity about your child’s emotional life leads to greater understanding and a stronger connection.