“How often is he crying?” asked our counsellor.
“A few times a week.” I replied.
“That’s not enough, he needs to be crying a lot more.” she recommended.
My son was four years old at the time and I’d just been given a prescription for tears.
I was shocked. More tears?
Isn’t my job as a parent to make my son happy?
Why did she want my son to cry more often?
Because the tears are the healing, not the hurting.
Because growing up is messy and there’s a lot to cry about.
Because there’s a lot of frustration when you’re little and you can’t always get what you want. The blue cup. The biggest cookie. The new toy. The ice cream shop to be open. The car trip to go faster. Mum’s full attention. Dad’s immediate response.
As Gordon Neufeld teaches, when kids need to cry but can’t access their tears, when they don’t move beyond their anger or their frustration, the emotions that need to move through them get stuck.
And when emotions are stuck…so too are our children. They become stuck in immaturity.
The emotions that tend to get stuck are the vulnerable ones; the tender feelings. The things that are only safe to be felt in the presence of safety.
The absence of safety means that tears can’t fall. The presence of connection allows them to flow.
You may have heard the saying that mad is sad’s bodyguard, and that’s because in our society – especially for boys – it’s more socially acceptable to be angry than it is to be sad, to shout and grumble than to cry and break down.
You see, our society doesn’t deal well with the messiness of growing up, with the tears and the upsets, with the meltdowns and the vulnerabilities. This may be why you know a few immature adults who have grown older but not grown up, the ones stuck in immaturity.
But, there is no getting around it. Feeling the full spectrum of their feelings is what our children need. Feeling the full spectrum of their feelings is the gateway to emotional maturity.
To be clear this is not the same thing as tears falling because we’ve left our child alone, or the tears some prescribe in the need to ‘train’ sleep. The tears my counsellor suggested we unlock were those vulnerable tears that flow freely when we’re in the presence and safety of a caregiver who is with us no matter what.
Yet this is foreign to many of us who grew up without the safety to cry when we needed to. Who were told to be ‘brave’ at all costs. Who were sent somewhere alone to ‘calm down’ when our anger masked our sadness and our feelings were too big for our parents to handle.
Like me, do you find yourself as an adult apologising to others for your tears?
Do you second guess yourself after a moment when you felt close enough to a friend to cry…but then felt embarrassed later, thinking, oh my gosh, why did I let my guard down?
Do you make excuses for your tears?
Do you overthink and explain away your vulnerable emotions?
Me too…you’re not alone.
As parents, we long for our children to stand centred in their human experience, to mature into grownups who are independent, self-sufficient and authentic. Yet we make a grave mistake when we believe society’s lie that if we can get a 5 or 8 or 13 year old to keep it together, to get on with it and to “act” independent, that they truly are independent.
True independence is a developmental milestone that can’t be rushed.
True independence is borne out of years of depending on someone who gets you, who loves you when you’re at your worst, who would move mountains for you, who drops everything and sits with you in your sadness, who shows up for you unconditionally.
“When we allow our children to deeply depend on us, to really lean into the embrace of our care, literally and figuratively, then what happens is that – out of the gift of deep dependence – true independence emerges.”Dr. Vanessa Lapointe
A young child who acts independent is doing just that; acting, performing, playing a role.
They’ve learned the behaviour we approve of – to not cause a fuss, to look after themselves, to be quiet, obedient, to people please – and they’ve learned that when they behave in those ways they get love, rewards, and “good girls” and “good boys”.
And so it begins at a young age…the putting on of the mask. The ego that comes in to protect the authentic self. We begin to hide our true selves behind our armour; the armour that keeps us safe in a world that doesn’t.
Behind that mask, beneath that facade is a very weak foundation that comes crumbling down when really put to the test.
And for some, the armour can become so thick and protective that we don’t let anyone in – we don’t need anyone else, we keep people at a distance, we can do it ourselves. Independence taken to the extreme becomes isolation.
And so this is what Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté are talking about when they say we need to keep our children’s hearts soft. A soft heart is an authentic self that hasn’t armoured up yet. A soft heart belongs to a child who believes they are safe to be who it is they truly are.
As a mother to a highly sensitive child, my counselor taught me that my son has an especially soft heart that can be crushed easily. And so I knew that from a young age, he was prone to protect it, to armour up, to stop the tears, and instead get stuck in frustration and anger.
It became my job to provide an abundance of safety. An ocean of connection.
It became my job to prove to him that when he was at his worst, for me, nothing changed. I could handle the bigness of his emotions. I didn’t take it personally. I loved him just as much.
And it became my job to provide futility. To not fix things…as I’m inclined to do. To not promise to replace the broken toy, to not drive to the ice cream shop that was open on the other side of town, to not bake a second batch of cookies…to not always believe that it was my job to make him happy.
To hold the futility of the situation:
“The ice cream shop is closed, you’re feeling so disappointed, you really wanted an ice cream.”
“Aw, your toy is broken. I can see that you feel sad.”
“Dad ate the biggest cookie, and you really wanted that cookie. It’s hard when you don’t get what you want.”
And then pause.
…for the frustration.
…for the bargaining.
…for the anger.
…for the softening into sadness.
…for the vulnerability to cry.
And through the tears, comes the healing.
Through feeling the spectrum of emotions comes emotional maturity.
It seems too simple…yet it’s anything but easy, especially for us grownups who still have some maturing to do.
Especially for us grownups who can feel triggered by our children’s tears. Those moments when our triggers rule us, disconnect us from our children and have us reacting in a way that’s out of alignment with our true selves. So, what’s happening in those moments? What does it mean to be triggered?
In the most simple terms, it’s as though we’re transported in time, we’re still a grownup, and it’s still 2023, but on the inside, our memory is playing a different tape. We may not consciously relive the experience, but our body remembers.
And so, suddenly we’re overcome by the same feelings of shame we felt as a 6 year old for our tears. And we don’t want to feel that way…so we try to stop our children’s tears as that’s the fastest way for us to feel better.
Only it isn’t helping our kids. And truth be told, it isn’t helping us either.
To be truly brave is to feel scared and do it anyway, and so we must be brave when we feel triggered and not automatically react, but instead pause and consciously respond.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”Viktor Frankl
Notice the feeling and maybe say something like this to yourself:
“Hello shame, I know you’re there. I see you. I feel you. I felt you when I was six years old when I was told that only babies cry. But now, looking back I can see that I should have been allowed to have my tears and that there was nothing wrong with me and everything wrong with the grownups who should have had my back. And so now, I will hold my six-year-old self, just as I hold my six-year-old son, and allow for us both to cry for as long as we need. Shame, you hold no power over me now and I will feel you dissolve, as you no longer serve me.”
The amazing news is we can mature alongside our kids, if we choose to. We can evolve.
Our kids don’t need us to be perfect.
Rather, they’re inviting us, they’re begging us to continue our journey so that they can complete theirs. They need us to soften our armour, to face our own futilities, to step into vulnerability, and to let our own tears flow.
“We will be saved in an ocean of tears.”Gordon Neufeld
And so unbeknownst to me, when I was given a prescription for my son of more tears, I had no idea it was meant for me too. Stepping through the doorway to conscious parenting has taught me more about myself than I ever anticipated.
It’s been the greatest blessing of my life and a gateway to so much growth and healing myself.
Because without our own softening, children become hardened.
Without our own vulnerability, our children cannot access theirs.
Without our unconditional love, their sadness becomes buried under mountains of less vulnerable emotions.
It might not come easy. For some, it is a daily practice, and an abundance of safety is needed. But it will reward you in the long term with a child who grows into true independence fueled by emotional resilience.
You just have to be brave enough to see.
“It’s not our job to stop children from crying. The crying is the healing not the hurting. When we stop children from crying they have to stuff the hurt inside instead of releasing it.”Pamela Leo