Giving Children Permission To Feel

Sarah McKennon MA, QMHP August 8, 2016

Giving Children Permission To Feel

In an article I read by the physician, Smita Malhotra in the Washington Post recently she described and conversation she had with her young daughter:

“You sad, Momma?” asked my 2-year-old daughter. I quickly replied, “No! Momma is happy, don’t worry!”

Malhorta reportedly had been watching the news and there was a mother grieving for the loss of her son during the recent shooting in Orlando. She explained how she was “overcome with sadness about the pain” that the mother who lost her child suddenly and violently was experiencing. She had hidden the truth from her young child.

She clarified how society sends children the message that being sad is almost unnatural. She said they try to make light of sad emotional experiences and often change the subject. Malhorta stated she found herself “trying to protect” her child from most emotions except happiness.

In her work as a physician she reported seeing an increase in the numbers of children and young adults being put on medications like antidepressants. These drugs were often prescribed to help with overwhelming emotional issues. Other times they were used as a way to avoid dealing with sadness. Parents want to give their children a quick fix when they are uncomfortable inside them selves. Malhotra recommended that parents needed to understand that children are pre-wired for coping with suffering as well as happiness.

I have worked extensively with children and teens experiencing grief from the loss of a loved one due to military separation, divorce, abandonment, death and incarceration. Malhorta makes some great points. I believe children who have felt a loss need to be able to experience all their emotions without judgment from the parent.

I recommend parents schedule regular times to listen and allow the child to feel safe expressing their feelings. They should practice “reflective listening” skills while doing so. Parents should then remove themselves for a time of reflection and evaluation regarding the child’s viewpoint concerning their feelings (not judging according to parent’s personal feelings). Parents must understand the developmental age of their child’s thought processes and act accordingly in order to guide them to maturity. Many children and youth may say very inconsiderate and self-centered statements about their feelings. Parents should not take them at face value or personally.

Malhorta explained that by allowing children to express and experience their troubled feelings and encouraging them to be comfortable with them, children learn resilience. When parents understand that people are not “defined by an emotion”, and that it is simply the way they feel at the moment, they can help their child learn this and how to overcome it (Malhorta, 2016). Experiencing and expressing pain also makes people more empathetic to the pain of others. Suffering encourages change, and recognizing this permits parents to help their children mature and manage their emotions.

Malhotra ends her article by explaining how the next time her daughter asks her, “You sad, Momma?” she will tell her that she is, and that it is okay. She reiterates how people may be sad, but they are not defined by their sadness. They may be scared, but they are not their fear. These emotions call on them to understand a deeper part of their selves and inspire change. She stated how they are a part of a full and whole human life. Parents need to be sure they experience their emotions and then move on to life action rather than getting stuck in th emotion. After a traumatic life challenge, which could include separation or divorce, death or loss of a loved one, witness of a violent act, moving, losing a job, etc. people will experience overwhelming unpredictable moments of overwhelming emotions. The length and incidents of such episodes should steadily decrease over time. The stages of grief are all very similar for traumatic life experiences that involve losing someone from the normal daily life pattern. Once a new life pattern emerges that is comfortable, things improve and life becomes fruitful again. Children are extremely resilient in overcoming loss because of the plasticity of their brains. Adults are able to cope because of their wisdom and experience with past hardships. Adults should not add to their high level of stress by worrying about if the child can overcome but rather guide the child to a newfound ability to be able to adapt and look forward to new experiences that are hopeful and healthy.


Portions based on reflections of the article: Instead Of Denying Our Sadness To Our Kids, We Should Teach Them How To Cope by Smita Malhotra, Washington Post July 21st 2016