One day my daughter's friend was playing at our house when a huge storm erupted. The sky darkened and there was a sudden downpouring of rain accompanied by thunder and lightning forks across the sky. We live on top of a hill and our house has a lot of big windows and glass doors in our living room, making the storm all the more dramatic and intimidating for the girls. Suddenly my daughter's friend started crying, she was truly very distressed. I put out my arms "oh dear Emily you look really scared" and she came in for a big hug. Between sobs she explained that she was really scared of storms.
We sat on the couch, my daughter on one side, me on the other, cosy under my daughter's quilt which she'd fetched to help her friend feel safe. Emily explained that one time she and her mum were separated from her dad during a storm because the roads were flooded. Ever since then when there's heavy rain, she would become very scared that she might get separated again from one or both of her parents.
We can't change a child's thinking until we help them get their feelings out. I explained to our little friend that every time there's a storm, her body remembers those scared feelings and it feels like something bad will happen again, but really her body just needs to let those scared feelings out through her tears and through telling us all about it. I reassured her that it might take a few cries, but once all those scared feelings are out, she'll no longer feel scared of bad things when there's a storm.
With that, she surrendered into those big feelings and had big cries in my arms and between sobs told us the whole story of the day, five years earlier when she was still at preschool. After a while, she felt happy again and thanked me at least three separate times for helping her with her feelings. There was a request for me to make popcorn, which seemed to elicit big excitement from them both. Today when I saw Emily, she again thanked me for helping her with her feelings and was very excited to tell me that she didn't feel so scared now about storms.
You might also like to read Peacefully parenting your anxious or resistant child. You can also read about the ways that you can help your child resolve anxieties and other difficult feelings through play; The Power of Play.
Did it upset my daughter to watch her friend go through this big emotional process? Once my daughter and I were in the car, I remarked how grateful her friend seemed to gain the support and my girl said: "I'm sure she does really appreciate you helping her mum, because probably when she gets upset at another person's house, they just say "it's ok, there's nothing to worry about, nothing bad's going to happen, dry your tears". Me: "And how might that make her feel?" DD: "Not very good, because she needs to get her pain out of her body and she needs to tell the story and feel cared for, otherwise she can't get her fears out and the fear just gets bigger and worse, but you listened to her and cared for her feelings, and now she feels less scared." I could tell how pleased she was that her friend received the listening she needed to get her fears out. Yep, she was just 8 at the time!!
Children instinctively know what they need to heal, they have the physiological urge to show, share, express and access the empathy they need to get it all out and return to emotional balance.
How easily reassurances like "don't worry" can feel minimizing. We adults need to just not block that process by minimizing their feelings, distracting them away from their feelings or causing them to intellectualize rather than feel what they need to feel. We also, of course, need to take the time to just be with them and hold them physically or emotionally or both as they work through those feelings and get them all out. Such a simple but powerful process.
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