What Adults Can Learn From Children: Feel Your Feelings

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If this generation of children is not responded to with caring, love, and empathy, then they too will learn the habits of denial and repression, says Sarah MacLaughlin.

Have you seen Jill Greenberg’s beautiful photos of children? She has an amazing eye. Her lighting is silky and bright; her subjects are chubby-cheeked and downright adorable. The thing is, these kiddos might be cute, but they are definitely not smiling. Actually, they are mad—really, REALLY mad—furious even.

The photographer gave children some candy and then took it away in order to catch their cranky reactions on film. This, understandably, stirred up some controversy. I myself was incensed until I read the fine print: Ms. Greenberg had not taken the candy away exactly, but merely had the parents give it and then ask for it back. I was still upset that a parent would volunteer their child for an upsetting incident that was unnecessary and only yielded a pretty, yet disturbing photo. I question the ethics of utilizing children for this voyeuristic type of “art.” To me it is clearly the exploitation and bullying of young children. Yet, what was most telling were the comments after the piece. It must have struck a nerve as there were over 700 of them. Some people agreed with me. Others saw things a little differently.

LMAO ARE YOU CRAZY THEY WERE HURT??? If anything she saved them from a couple rotten teeth. IT’S CANDY. NOBODY WAS HURT.

All the people making a fuss about the “poor children” are the reason the children of today have no coping skills. Did anyone stop to think that this is an important lesson for children? Many things in life, especially those we treasure can be taken away in a moment and we must learn to cope with the loss. Although it seems cruel because it’s a child, its an important lesson that will help the children for their entire life. I’m not saying that this is the right way to go about delivering the message, but I certainly don’t think it did them any harm.

This is both HILARIOUS and BEAUTIFUL photography. All these uptight douches complaining obviously have no taste or sense of humor.

Ugh…I have a 5 year old and a 3 year old. I take shit from them constantly. Life sucks. They’re going to cry. I’m a good mom, and my kids are healthy, smart, sensitive, over-dramatic assholes. These pictures are hilarious. Get over it. Yeah, maybe a little cruel, but whatever. It was a good laugh for me 🙂

These photos are anything but funny. If you did not click the link, do it right now. Just look at that one, first photo. The one where the girl’s eyes are squeezed shut. Her mouth is open in what I can only imagine is a wail of grief. Her small, dimpled hand is resting in the center of her chest. Her heart is breaking. Each of these children is in pain. Real, true pain. All the comments assessing this as hilarious or overly dramatic are wrong. These children’s emotional outbursts, caught in these photos, are appropriate, intelligent, right.

We adults, stupidly, recoil from and tamp down our feelings. This is the opposite of what we should do. To quote Rumi: “The cure for the pain is in the pain.” According to parenting educator, Pam Leo, “Crying is the healing, not the hurting.” Today, I received as a gift the Gabor Maté book, When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection. An entire book—a book first published in 1993, no less—about how our emotions and internal life affect our stress level, our cells, our very health.

If our approach is “They don’t know how tough life is—they thought they’d get some candy and they didn’t—big deal. Get used to disappointment kid,” we are turning away from a human who is in pain. We should not trivialize a child’s perspective and abandon them when they need us to help them work though their feelings. Think about it. How can something all young humans are biologically driven to do—feel, cry, and emote—be wrong? How can we think it is a good idea for us to stop this process as we grow older? Emotions are real, neurological, chemical reactions—feelings are biological. Ignoring them and pretending they don’t exist is unwise, especially in young, developing bodies. 

Children’s losses, however small, are still devastating. Eventually, they will experience deeper, more profound loss. That is inevitable. And if we, as adults, are incapable of tolerating their grief around the little things, how will they ever work through their grief about the bigger things later in life?

And that is where the toddlers are smarter. They know that having their feelings will always help them feel better. These kids not only have coping skills, they are the embodiment of those skills. They are actually coping quite beautifully with their disappointment, rage, and sorrow. They are feeling it. And then, they will easily move on.

Adults can do this too, and they can do it in ways that are socially appropriate. As human brains mature, they can learn the right time and right place for big feelings. If our culture was not so tear-phobic, there would be a totally different view of what “appropriate” emotions are. I watched President Obama choke back tears as he addressed the nation after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I saw a first responder to the Oklahoma tornadoes work amazingly hard to hold his emotions at bay while being interviewed on television.

Have we come so far that crying over murdered and dead children is not even acceptable?

Because here’s the beast that has reared its ugly, scaly head: Most adults don’t know how to engage their feelings, they only know how to rationalize, manage, and avoid them. If this generation of children is not responded to with caring, love, and empathy, then they too will learn the habits of denial and repression. They will grow into the next cohort who become mentally ill or turn to drugs, food, sex, or shopping to manage how they feel because they refuse to simply feel.

Sarah MacLaughlin is a social worker and author of the award-winning book What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children. She considers it her life’s work to promote happy, well adjusted people in the future by increasing awareness of how children are spoken to today. Sarah teaches classes and workshops, and consults with families everywhere. She is also Mom to a young son who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. Follow her on Facebook, Blogger, and Twitter.

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