Many parents have no idea how much power tears have in helping their kids become resilient, competent people. When my children were young I had the good fortune to learn about this important psychological ally from Dr. Gordon Neufeld, best-selling author of Hold on to Your Kids. Instead of trying to get my kids to cry, I learned to encourage healthy tears when appropriate, and that, as they say, has made all the difference in my parenting.
For kids to adapt to what isn’t working in their life, they need to feel their sorrow, which more often than not when they are small, involves tears. Sometimes kids get stuck developmentally and they don’t feel their sadness or have their tears. The sad thing is that when kids lose their tears, they aren’t able to learn from what isn’t working for them, and are often destined to repeat the same mistakes over and over.
I want to share a powerful example of how a parent used this information to help her daughter. The story is written in the moms’ words, in the first person and all names have been changed to protect the family’s privacy.
My daughter became stuck in her defense against her tears and vulnerability when she was young. I learned to help Erin to feel her tears, instead of reacting harshly and lashing out verbally or physically. Last night was a perfect example of where helping her find her sadness stopped her from reacting angrily to a situation she didn’t like.
Erin was vacuuming the floor because it was her turn. She forgot to do the front entrance, and when I reminded her, she snapped. Her behavior was rapidly deteriorating and by her words I could tell she was in a bad place. She said things like, “You never check when Peter vacuums. I hate vacuuming. I’m not going to do it.”
In the past I used to get sucked in to a power struggle (I relapsed recently, so I had some vivid reminders of why I didn’t want to go there again!). So I came on her side and empathized with her situation. I said things like, “you really don’t want to vacuum.” I showed her that I understood that she really didn’t want to vacuum.
At one point when she was grudgingly picked up the vacuum, she hurt herself on the metal rod. She cried and cried. I took her in my arms and held her. After awhile she calmed down, and then she finished the job without another complaint. She was loving and happy with me afterwards, when in the beginning of her resistance she was saying things like, “You hate me.”
In the middle of her tears and carrying on, I was tempted to relieve her of some of her job. Fortunately I know that one of my most important jobs as a parent is to help her to accept limits so that she will be able to adapt and thrive in the world. So I held firm, sympathizing with the fact that she had to do the job while being firm that she had to do it.
This is a powerful example of how tears can take an angry, stuck child and transform him or her into a much more compliant, happy child.
Before signing off, I want to add that it is equally important that you have your own tears about that which isn’t working for you. As soon as Dr. Neufeld explained why tears are important, my years in the counselor’s chair crying made sense! At the time I thought my tears were a bit over the top, but I knew I needed help so I kept going. Besides, I always felt better after having my tears.
Now I know that those tears were absolutely necessary for me to mature further and find better ways of getting my needs met. Through having my tears, cognitive therapy and other personal growth, I learned how to overcome depression, anxiety issues and major parenting challenges. If you are frustrated with your kids or other aspects of your life, see if you can find a way to have your own tears first, before trying to tackle the challenge. You may need to call a friend or go see a counselor or coach to find your tears, and you’ll be glad you did.