Children Need a Safe Place to Feel Bad

Tuesday, June 13, 2017


I don’t think I’m alone in this – I hate when my children feel bad. I don’t want them to have to feel sadness or loneliness, grief or pain. I wish they were in a permanent bubble of joy, and no bad feelings could touch them. When they come home from school feeling sad because they were rejected or when they feel angry because something didn’t go as they’d hoped or planned, my initial reaction is to make it better. Then come the questions I desperately want to ask. “Why did he not let you play?” “What did you do?” “Why did the teacher say that?” “What did your brother do to you?” I’ve learned to breathe through those initial reactions (most of the time) because in my 11 years of parenting, I’ve learned that they don’t need 20 questions nor do they necessarily need me to fix it. What my kids really need is a safe place to feel bad.

That’s hard, isn’t it? Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable when they feel bad. Their sadness becomes my sadness; their pain is my pain. That’s par for the course in parenting, but allowing them space to feel all their feelings, even the rough, prickly ones, is a tremendous gift. Let’s look at parents’ typical responses to negative feelings:

1. The Dismiss – “Oh, cheer up. It can’t be that bad.” “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.” “If that’s your biggest problem, you’re pretty lucky.” We just want them to learn some perspective, right? A broken toy isn’t the end of the world. Kid problems seem really small in comparison to our adult problems, but to our kids, kid problems are the only problems they know, and they feel just as big to them as our adult problems feel to us. In fact, how they learn to handle the kid problems now will have a big impact on their overall happiness and success in life. When we dismiss their feelings, they either learn not to trust their own emotions (Why does this bother me so much if it’s not a big deal? What’s wrong with me?) or they may feel like we just don’t truly care about their emotional world or that don’t “get them,” and that harms our relationships.


Try this: Instead of “it can’t be that bad,” try telling your child about a time you experienced something similar and how you felt at the time. Feeling like their parents understand and empathize with them helps them feel closer to us, and connection is important in guarding against depression and addiction.

2. The Fixer. “I’m sorry Zack hurt your feelings. I’ll call his mother and talk to her about it.” “I can’t believe you got a C on this. I can see why you’re mad! You worked so hard. I’m going to see your teacher.” “I know you’re sad that your cat died. We’ll go get you another cat.” It feels like we are doing right by them, stepping up to fix the problem, but it isn’t always the appropriate response. Sometimes we can fix it, but sometimes they need to fix it themselves, or just accept that sometimes, things are bad for a while. That’s life. We’ve all heard the stories of parents still coming to college to intervene, and if we don’t step back and let kids deal with the tough stuff sometimes, that might end up being us! A deeper problem with being “the fixer” is that kids learn that bad feelings are, well bad and need to be avoided at all costs. They become extremely uncomfortable when things don’t go their way and may always be looking for a fix, which could lead to dangerous territory. Kids need to know that bad feelings are normal too. Emotionally intelligent children learn how to feel their anger or sadness and move through it without letting it become destructive.

Try this: “I’m sorry you’re feeling bad. Would you like a hug?” One of the toughest but most mature things we can do as parents is to learn to hold space for our children through tough emotions and not become engulfed in them ourselves. This is especially true with anger as it often evokes our own anger that we have to breathe through. We have to be the steady captain when the waters get choppy so that our children feel safe with us. When we sit with them through their bad feelings instead of rushing to fix everything, they learn that bad feelings are temporary anyway, and that’s a really important lesson.

3. The Isolator. ...Continue reading at Creative Child Magazine

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