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  • Writer's pictureDr Beth Mosley

How to best support your child through difficult feelings - Belfast Telegraph Article

Belfast Telegraph - How to best support your child through difficult feelings

Consultant clinical psychologist and author of new parenting book Happy Families, Dr Beth Mosley, shares her advice for how to support your child through life’s challenges.

The emotional X-ray

When our child is in physical pain, we observe their physical symptoms (e.g., temperature, visible damage, acuity of pain) and ask questions — ‘Where’s the pain? What kind of pain? Do you feel sick?’

These observations are our attempt to work out the underlying cause of our child’s physical symptoms and, most importantly, to establish what the best treatment for help is, if required. It might be that the illness will pass with the body’s immune system simply needing time to do its job. It could just benefit from rest and perhaps a painkiller (e.g., a cold virus, chicken pox, a blister).

Other times, there may be something that requires treatment in order for the body to heal properly or stop a deterioration in health (e.g., appendicitis, badly broken limb, bacterial infection). As a parent, your anxiety about your child’s physical symptoms is to ensure that you take the necessary action for your child to receive the appropriate treatment. You wouldn’t want to use a painkiller to mask something that needed treatment and, left untreated, could be life-threatening (e.g., meningitis), or impact on your child’s recovery from an injury (e.g., a broken limb that requires a cast/surgery).

Unfortunately, we don’t have an emotional X-ray and therefore, it’s harder to take this same approach with emotional discomfort or pain. We may see the symptoms of distress (e.g., crying, moodiness, withdrawal, not eating, self-harm). We might feel confused or have our own emotional response (just like when we see physical discomfort or pain) of anxiety or worry.

We could ask what’s wrong or guess something is wrong, but we don’t necessarily have the tools or vocabulary to discover what the underlying cause of the pain could be, what it means, and the best course of action. Perhaps we unintentionally suggest the equivalent of a painkiller (e.g., distraction, watch a screen, have a treat, focus on the positives, ‘it will be alright’) to mask a problem that our child needs more help to understand, rather than distract away from or ignore. By doing this, we may accidentally reinforce the idea that emotional discomfort is something to be avoided if possible.

Research has shown that those who are able to notice and tolerate their emotions do better in terms of their wellbeing. If we’re able to learn to tune into strong emotions, we can discover they may be telling us something about (a) what’s important to us; and (b) what’s happening in our life. By understanding this, we can try to establish what needs to change and if we need help from others to support that change.

As parents, we can play a crucial role in supporting our children with:
  • becoming more emotionally aware;

  • helping them turn towards, rather than run away from or block, painful emotions;

  • learning how to understand how emotions might give information about what’s most important to us.

We can do this through sitting with the feelings alongside our children, exploring values, and using them to guide us on what to do next.

Sitting with the feelings

When my then nine- year-old daughter heard the news that her dad was having a baby with his new partner, she was initially really excited. Having two brothers, she began to consider life with a baby sister and not being the only girl in the family. Around a week after she received the news, I found her crying in her bed after I thought she had gone to sleep. I crept into her bed in the

dark and lay with her. ‘What’s up?’ I asked. She said it was about the new baby between sobs. She didn’t want Dad to have a new baby. She might not like it. With my emotional guess-ray, I wondered if she might feel sad, angry, insecure (fearful of rejection) and possibly a little envy, as this baby would be with Dad every day of the week.

With a bit more reassurance that I was hearing her and not judging her, she went on to explain she was scared that having a new baby would mean her dad would love her less, that she would stop being so special to him. In fact, she asked, was it possible he could stop loving her at all, especially as the new baby would be with him all the time?

For me, these had been all of my fears when I heard the news, so it took a lot of internal resource to put aside how I was feeling, and instead focus on what my daughter needed right now. I couldn’t take away this pain, I couldn’t guarantee she wouldn’t struggle with some of the things she was starting to worry about. I wanted to be able to offer all the solutions, tell her it would be fine, to not be silly. I’d talk to her dad and make sure this wouldn’t happen. But I didn’t. I lay there, bearing the pain (which was crushing me, too), but staying calm and loving, sitting with it so she didn’t need to feel afraid or ashamed of it. Honouring her world, her experience. For a long time, I lay with her in the dark, our arms touching, hearing her cry and feeling her rapid breathing; my quiet presence eventually soothed her.

Many years after this experience, I listened to a podcast with professor and author Brené Brown, where she talked about a similar incident with her teenage daughter experiencing a break-up with her boyfriend. She, like me, had sat on her daughter’s bed, in the dark, wanting to take away the pain her daughter was going through. The whole time she was looking at the light switch on the wall thinking, ‘This is so hard; I just want to turn on that light and take away the pain’. But she didn’t. She understood sitting with her daughter in the dark at that moment was her main task as parent.

So often we do not want our children to experience difficult emotions. Instead, we want to take this away or solve the problem. But learning to go through this emotion and understanding it’s safe to do this can help a young person develop resilience and a sense that when hard things happen, they have the skills to deal with it. As parents, we don’t have to pretend we know everything or that we’re always in control. The key is to show up, see our children and provide them with the reassurance that we can find a way through this challenge, even if it does hurt.

When our children are in distress, the first thing we need to do is sit alongside them and acknowledge their feelings without trying to move them too quickly from the pain they’re in.

Happy Families - How to Protect and Support Your Child's Mental Health

The above is an extract from Happy Families: How to Protect and Support Your Child's Mental Health (Bluebird, £16.99) by Dr Beth Mosley.

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