How I Learned To Let My Tween Feel Their Emotions

by Jennifer Underwood
Elva Etienne/Getty

My daughter gets a particular look on her face sometimes. It’s hard to explain, but I’ve learned to recognize it; a blank, carefully controlled facade, it speaks of trouble right below the surface. It’s the symptom of containing her emotions, a pushing down of what she has deemed “bad” while simultaneously trying to pretend like everything is alright… “normal,” whatever that might mean. It’s an attempt to be somewhere she is not, because the place she’s at, internally, seems like a place to avoid, a place that is too dark, too scary, too sad.

There was a point in time when I might have not even noticed this look on her face, as busy as I was trying to pretend like everything was alright and normal myself. Much worse, and much harder to admit, there was a point in time where I might have seen it, and looked away. I would have been grateful that she was pretending. I could barely admit my own emotions, breathe through my own fears, get through the minutes of my own life.

How could I possibly be with her emotions, too? I didn’t have the capacity.

I grew up in a family that expressed emotions but never talked about them. We bottled our feelings up until they exploded, shattering the illusion that things were okay with the shards of anger, tears, screams filled with accusations and judgments that went flying everywhere. These incidents happened much too often, wounding all who were in the path of the explosion. In the aftermath, there would be no discussions of what happened, no ownership of how our feelings had been inappropriately expressed and hurt others, no self-responsibility, and certainly, no apologies. We were left to our devices to control the bleeding and bandage our wounds, expected to patch ourselves up and then return to pretending that all was okay.

With no discussion of what happened, there was never any healing or learning, and therefore no chance that the instances would not happen again. We’d all walk on eggshells for a while, tender and sore, our smiles a little too forced, careful with each interaction, scurrying back to the safety of our private rooms. Then, slowly, we’d go back to “normal,” until another emotional bomb exploded.

The concept of expressing feelings without aiming them like daggers at those you love was not one I encountered until graduate school. Asking how someone was and then listening without attempting to fix; holding space for sadness and anger and grief, knowing it was better to get it out than hold it in; understanding that my emotional reactions were something for me to hold and process through, not throw onto other people. These were all concepts I learned, believed in, and started to practice, for the first time in my life… with my clients.

At home, it never occurred to me to use these same skills when parenting. If my daughter was upset, I tried to fix it, soothe it, or if neither worked, got frustrated and walked away. If she was mad, I responded with anger of my own. When she tried to express how she felt, I assumed I knew where it was coming from before truly listening, and rushed ahead with judgments and assumptions. Sure, I apologized after, taking at least one solid learning from my childhood, something I could do better, something that was never done for me. Less emotional bombs exploded. But I never considered that I should, or even could, just let my daughter be sad, or angry, or scared, and not attempt to do anything to change it.

We are so programmed to soothe our children. We bandage up their wounds, we assuage their fears, we wipe away their tears, and we try our hardest to limit the times when they might get hurt, when they might be scared, when they might suffer. We try to distract them from their hurts with fun activities and sweet treats, tell them that it’s all going to be okay, and gently urge them not to cry, and we think we are doing the most upstanding parenting thing we can do as we do it. And of course, to some extent, this is healthy and true.

Our children do need us to bandage their wounds, and wipe their tears, and assuage their fears. They need to know how to soothe themselves, pick themselves up, and move on from physical and emotional hurts — and in order to learn that, they need us to help them when they are little. They need love and support and reassurance of security and safety. They need to know that we are there and we aren’t going to leave.

But they also need to cry, and yell, and whimper. They need to be sad, and angry, and afraid. And they need the space to actually feel these feelings when they come up before rushing forward onto something that seems better because doing so makes these feelings seem bad.

They need it like they need to eat their vegetables, brush their teeth, and get a good night’s sleep. It’s that essential.

I didn’t know this when I started parenting. I couldn’t have known it, because it was something that was never taught me to, and never taught to my parents. And from what I’ve seen, I’m not in the minority on this one.

A life where it’s okay to be sad, and angry, and afraid, where people are encouraged to feel those feelings without apology, or shame, without rushing through them or suppressing them? I didn’t see that in my home growing up, but I also didn’t see it amongst my friends. I didn’t run into it during my undergrad years in college, and I rarely if ever saw it modeled in television shows and movies.

It’s not just a thing we didn’t do in my home, growing up. It’s a thing we don’t do as a society.

We aren’t comfortable with sadness. We are afraid of anger. We cover up fear with false bravado. And then we wonder why we are so depressed, irritated, and anxious.

Then we teach this to our children.

When I see my daughter get that look on her face now, I stop, immediately. It doesn’t matter if we’ll be late to where we are going, if I have a million things to do, if I had a plan that didn’t make room for whatever it is she is feeling. I stop, and I ask what is going on.

She eleven years old now. She doesn’t always tell me, at least not right at that moment. Sometimes she wants more time to process; sometimes she just stubbornly wants to stew in it longer. Sometimes she simply doesn’t trust at that moment that it’s okay to tell me what she’s actually feeling, that I can hold it and just allow it to be without making it wrong, trying to change it, getting angry about it, or rushing through it.

I get that. For the first six or seven years of her life, I taught her that I would likely do all of those things. I taught her that it wasn’t safe to be honest and express fully how she was feeling. I taught her that it could be bad to have those feelings.

Those are things that can be hard to un-learn. I know. I still struggle with it as an adult.

I remind myself to stay patient with her. I remind her that it’s not only safe to express anything and everything she is thinking and feeling, but that feeling those feelings and talking about it with someone you love is the direct path to healing, moving through them into something new. I remind her of times when she held her feelings in that eventually led to angry blow ups, acting out on both our parts, and hurting each other.

I let it go, for the moment, but then I ask again later. I keep asking until she tells me.

Eventually, she does. Then, I listen. I ask questions. I hold her while she cries, or beat a pillow with her if she’s angry. I gently ask questions that I’m often afraid to ask, questions I sincerely do not know the answer to, and yet know that if there’s something there, she is going to need extra permission to express herself. I ask her if she’s mad at me and if I hurt her, if I sense that there’s a chance that she’s holding that part back. I ask her if there’s embarrassment or shame, if she’s reticent to share what’s happening and open a conversation about that. I ask her if she needs anything.

Sometimes the answers are hard to hear. She opens up about times I did hurt her. She tells me that she’s lonely and scared. She expresses hurt and anger about the way other people are treating her in her life, people I can’t control or change.

I let her cry. I let her be sad. I let her be angry, and scared. I let her feel all the things, and say all the things, and I let there be space for that first.

I hold her through it all, and try to help her navigate ways to feel her own emotions, and communicate her own needs, her own boundaries. I try not to take it personally. Sometimes, I let down my guard, too. I open up myself about how I’m feeling, and I show her my sadness, my anger, my fear… but only if it feels like it gives her extra permission to show her own inner world to me, too.

Eventually, after all of that, we get down to the business of making things better. But that comes later. I don’t tell her that it’s all going to be okay, because sometimes, it’s not. I do make clear commitments as to what I can do to help, and then I keep them. We move on, together.

But first, we feel.

It always seems like a complicated, drawn out process when I think about it, but in actuality, all of this takes maybe 15 minutes, and then we are tickling each other, laughing, in a totally different space, completely connected, open, and real with each other.

That’s one of life’s biggest secrets. Sadness, anger, and fear always feel like they will swallow you whole if you go into them, but once you do, they release. They move through you, usually within a few minutes. And if you can feel them with someone else, the process brings you closer.

It is the real balm to all our wounds. Feeling our feelings fully, in the presence of others, is — as it turns out — all the soothing that we ever really need.