“It is a grave injustice to a child or adult to insist that they stop crying. One can comfort a person who is crying which enables him to relax and make further crying unnecessary; but to humiliate a crying child is to increase his pain, and augment his rigidity.”
Alexander Lowen, The Voice of the Body
So one day, this happens with your child’s best friend.
The friend is playing with someone new and your child hasn’t been invited. You’re child feels like an outcast. A loser. Something must be wrong with him/her.
A very painful experience.
I hear from teachers and parents who tell me about children who’ve experienced this kind of loss. The child believes that by no longer spending time together, their former friend is bullying them. The child confuses this normal, but painful event as bullying.
It’s not surprising that widespread awareness on the topic has turned bullying into an easy scapegoat for children experiencing emotional pain.
Why do kids avoid painful feelings? For many children the simple answer is: It’s what they’ve learned.
From an early age, we socialize kids to overcome, distract from, or avoid painful feelings. Adults model the process that starts almost as soon as infancy ends.
When our kids fall down, we tell them that “they’re ok”. We ask them to stop crying. Sometimes, we flat out tell kids to: “get over it” or “man up.”
Further, to stop kids’ crying we give them something else to do: stick a bottle in their mouth, offer something to eat, or place them in front of a screen.
We’re embarrassed and annoyed by kids who scream and cry on a plane, in a restaurant, or another public place. The message: feelings, especially loud and uncomfortable feelings, should be avoided at all cost. This is not helpful for us or for our kids.
Children who blame their pain on others or say they were bullied in situations of normal loss is one way to avoid feeling pain.
Adults need to learn and then model for children how to accept and allow life’s inevitable painful emotions. But how?
First, when a child tells you they were bullied, listen. Ask questions. Get interested in the story they are telling so you can discern whether the pain they feel is actually caused by a bullying experience or due to normal feelings of loss or sadness as relationships change.
The definition of bullying from stopbullying,gov: Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.
If you believe a child has been bullied, read There is no such thing as a Bully. Also take time to explore the Stop Bullying.gov site so you can support both of the children involved: the one who actually did the bullying and the child hurt by bullying.
Support (yourself) and your children when you’re feeling emotional pain by using the following steps and resources:
- Ask for the story of what happened: Use questions like: “What happened? What did he/she say? What did you say? What happened next? Who did what? While the child tells their story, Listen for the facts, NOT the child’s (or your) interpretations and judgments about what happened.*
- Ask how the child feels: “How do you feel about what happened?” Patience. Don’t rush to the next step. Tears and/or anger may come. Allow the child to feel their feelings. Don’t interrupt. Be present with the child with tenderness and compassion while they process their emotions. It might be uncomfortable for you, but you can do it! Breathe. Hold a loving space for the child.
- Say these words or similar to the child: “I am so sorry that you feel __________ about your experience with _______________.” Please note: You are not apologizing for causing the child’s feelings. You’re simply acknowledging, accepting, and allowing the child to have and express his/her emotions. By saying you’re sorry, you are acknowledging the child’s pain. You are reserving your own judgment and allowing the child to have their own perception of what happened for the moment. This allows the child to access and process their emotions.
- Add your own words of understanding: “I understand how (insert the feeling the child claimed) you are that (insert the facts of what happened).” Put it into your own sincere wording. Keep it factual, don’t add any judgements and don’t buy into or add to the child’s story or judgment about what happened.
- Ask: “What did you make this [experience] mean?” You may have an idea of the meaning the child has added since you took the time to hear their story and helped them connect with their emotions. Help the child to understand that they turned what happened with their friend into a story of bullying or (insert their meaning). Share your own related story with the child to help them see that we all do this sort of thing at times. We “make up” a painful story when we have experiences that don’t meet our desires or expectations.
- Help the child create a new story about this experience that is empowering for them. Note: The child may need time to be with their disappointment and loss. In that case, you can start with acknowledging the child for telling their story and help them own the fact that they are strong. “You are so strong and I’m proud of you for coming to me for help.” When the child is ready, make sure that the new story you help him/her come up with is a story that the child believes and that feels better to them. The new story could be something such as: “I learned something new about friendships today.” or, “I experienced something difficult and I can handle it.”
- Find the entire playlist of above videos HERE.
My guess is that you do some version of this to help your kids reframe painful experiences in a positive light. I want to emphasize that step 2 & 3 are very important in helping children understand that it’s ok to feel and process their emotions.
Taking a few moments to feel through and not skip over emotions helps aid healing. It builds resilience. And it returns us to joy and possibility instead of leaving us stuck with stories about how life goes wrong.
As the adult, you may need to take the time to practice feeling through your own emotions. Doing so will help you model for children that all emotions are normal and will pass quickly if we allow them instead of fighting or avoiding them.
*Note: The Find the Facts exercise in my free workshop, Causing Kindness, gives you simple skills to help kids be more kind to themselves and others.