Hard Talks

Why I Don't Make My Kid Feel Better The Minute She Gets Sad

It’s my job as a parent to teach her to cope with the ups and downs of life.

Teaching your teens it's OK to feel sad sometimes, coping skills
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This weekend my kid wasn’t herself — she was quiet, extra irritated with everyone, and didn’t have her usual weekend zest. I asked if anything was wrong and she shook her head. I knew something was off, but I’ve learned that sometimes she needs a bit of space, so I gave it to her. We went out to dinner and it got worse, and I looked up to find her crying behind her menu. Finally she admitted: “I don’t know what’s wrong, I just feel sad.”

She said nothing had triggered her, and she wasn’t stressed or worried about anything specific. In fact, she told me she felt bad because she was “sad for no reason.” And that’s when I passed along something that I wish I’d heard a long time ago: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling sad for no reason.”

I didn’t try to cheer her up. I didn’t run off a list of all the things she should be thankful for. I didn’t tell her to do this or that in order to make herself feel better. And I didn’t tell her she’d feel better tomorrow or soon or next week.

We’ve all had days when we felt down or extra agitated and we weren’t sure why. Maybe we figured it out later, but at that moment we didn’t know why we weren’t ourselves. I know I’ve had my share of days when I couldn’t stop crying even though I couldn’t put my finger on the cause, and it never made me feel any better when someone told me to cheer up or count my blessings. That’s not helpful, that’s toxic positivity.

Everyone wants to be seen and heard. That includes our kids. And we need to let them know it’s okay if they are feeling certain emotions and they aren’t sure where they are coming from. It’s a part of life, and rather than trying to talk them out of their feelings — which never works — we have to give them the tools to be okay with processing their emotions in a healthy way.

It was hard to see my kid so sad. My instinct is to jump in and try to fix it. It ran through my heart to pepper her with more questions so we could figure this out together and she could move on from the bad place she was in. But that’s not how it works for me, so why would it work for her?

She didn’t need me to try and make her happy by buying her something or giving her a bunch of advice on how to get out of that mood. She has to work through these times on her own, which is exactly what she did. What she needed was my support in the meantime.

A few hours later, after she had a good cry and we hugged in the restaurant bathroom for a really long time, she started to seem like her old self again. I didn’t push her, I didn’t ask her any more questions, and as hard as it was, I didn’t say, “I’m so glad you are happy again!” I wanted to tell her that because I was so glad, but I didn’t want her to feel like she was a burden for feeling sad or that there is any shame in feeling down. Instead, I told her that I was proud of her.

Giving her the space to be sad, whether there is a reason or not, is really hard because I do want to make her feel better. But I know I can’t fix it for her and I’ll be a more effective person in her life if I let her cope with her ups and downs by telling her that her feelings are normal and valid instead of giving her all the reasons why she should be happy instead.

Diana Park is a writer who finds solitude in a good book, the ocean, and eating fast food with her kids.