Señor Secondthoughts

Who wants to hear about a parenting victory? This one comes with a mascot, and his name is Señor Secondthoughts. 

Our youngest got a much-desired present for her sixth birthday: A stuffed Owlette and and a stuffed Gecko, of PJ Masks. She’s had Catboy for a while, but she really wanted the other two. I discovered it was cheaper to buy a set of three, so when the new stuffies arrived, I tossed the extra Catboy in my closet and wrapped up the other two, and she was absolutely thrilled.

A few weeks later, she barged into my room and stumbled across the extra Catboy. So we explained what happened and said she could keep the extra toy if she wanted to. My husband suggested that she could give him a mustache and turn him into Catboy’s evil twin. She thought that was amusing, and went on her way.

Half an hour later, she barged in again, this time in tears. She explained that she “actually took Daddy seriously” and went ahead and gave Catboy a mustache, and now she changed her mind, but it was too late, because she used permanent marker. She then dissolved into sobs of real, terrible sorrow and regret.

 My first struggle was not to burst out laughing, because Catboy looks hilarious with a mustache. The one she gave him has a little twirl and looks very evil indeed. 

My second struggle was to resist doing any of the things I would have done in the past, if a child had come to me with a problem like this.

In the past, if I had been feeling cranky, I would have told her that it wasn’t so bad, and it wasn’t worth crying over, because it was just a toy and she does have another toy, and some kids would be happy to have two Catboys.

If I had been feeling sympathetic, I would have said I don’t want her to feel sad about a birthday present, and I would have ordered a replacement on the spot (for a grand total of three Catboys) to make her stop crying.

Or if I had been in a hurry, I might have just tried to distract her, make it into a joke, or change the subject, so she would forget her problem and be cheerful again.

Behold: I have been in therapy for several years, so here is what I did instead.

I held her and rubbed her back while she cried, and said I could see how sad she was and how bad it felt, and how I know she wishes she hadn’t done it. And we just stayed with that for a while, and were sad together, until he started to calm down a little. In pop psychology terms, this is called letting her “feel her feelings.”

Then I said there is a name for what she’s feeling, and that name is “regret.” I told her regret is when something seems like a really good idea, so you do it, but then you suddenly realize it wasn’t a good idea. I said that everybody does things and then feels regret sometimes. She is a kid who loves words and loves to understand how human beings act, so giving her a name for what she was feeling was important; and it was important to let her know that it was a common human feeling, and she wasn’t uniquely foolish or uniquely suffering. This also gave her something intellectual to focus on, and broke up the storm of feelings somewhat.

Then I told her that sometimes, we feel a lot of regret over something, and it feels really bad, but sometimes, after a while, we figure out a way to make it work, and then it stops feeling so bad, and might even start feeling good. I said that it was okay to feel bad right now, but that she probably wouldn’t feel this bad forever. I said that everybody knows she’s really good at figuring stuff out and finding ways to have fun with things, so she could probably someday figure out a way to have fun with Evil Catboy — or, as I was by now calling him in my head, Señor Secondthoughts. I wanted to build her up a little, and remind her that she’s capable of rising above this. And I wanted her to know that this was going to be something she herself would be dealing with. 
She was quite a bit calmer by this time, but I know she has a habit of suddenly reminding herself of what she was upset about and getting worked up all over again; so I seized the moment and distracted her with some other topic entirely. She took the bait, got excited about the new thing (some snack or something, I forget what), and off she went, leaving Señor Secondthoughts behind.  
She has since re-discovered this mustachio’d villain, and it doesn’t seem to bother her at all. 
Here’s the important part: This is not a formula for making everything better. That did happen in this case, with this particular kid, for this particular problem she had. But even if she hadn’t responded so well, I would have been happy with how I handled it, because it’s not about the problem right now. It’s about the kid and her future.
More and more, I’m realizing that my job as parent is not to fix my kid’s problems, and it’s definitely not my job to make them stop feeling bad and start feeling good as quickly as possible. You can do that with babies, but once a kid is old enough to have a conversation, they’re old enough to start talking about feelings, and learning what to do with them. 
When a kid is upset, my first impulse is usually to try to push past the bad feelings, either with sternness or with sympathy. But even if it does quiet the kid down quickly, this is just papering over an emotional mess. The mess will still be there, and the kid will not have learned any skills for how to clean it up when it inevitably happens again. 
I had a big revelation: Part of the reason I want to fix things as quickly as possible is because my kid’s strong feelings elicit strong feelings in me; and sometimes, that’s actually what I’m trying to manage: My own feelings, not my kid’s. It’s very normal to feel impatience or disgust or distress or pity when a kid comes to you sobbing. But it’s not fair to make the kid to change her behavior so that my feelings about it are more manageable. This doesn’t help the child at all. It doesn’t equip her for the future, and may even teach her awful mental habits of inappropriate shame and nameless resentment that will emerge in various unpleasant ways for the rest of her life (not that I would know anything about that, twitch twitch). 
My job isn’t to make her shush. My job is to teach her how to be a human being who will inevitably make mistakes, feel bad about them, and live to tell the tale.
So this is how we do it: We let kids feel their feelings. We name the feeling, and we call it normal, and let them know it’s okay to feel this way. Then we talk about what might happen next, and remind them that they do have the power to move on and be awesome. And then we do something else. You can actually do this with kids of all ages, using age-appropriate terms. 
Important: Sometimes, you just don’t have time for this, and that’s okay, too. Sometimes a little kid is melting down and you absolutely need to be somewhere, so your only choice is to scoop them up and deal with it later. This, too, is normal. But if at all possible, it is a good idea to deal with it later, and not just chalk it up to a kid being bad. 
And sometimes you just blow it. Sometimes you’re not the ideal parent, and you handle things wrong. And what is this called? This is called having regrets. It feels bad, but etc. etc. etc. See?  You can do this for yourself, too. 
When you do have time to go through all the steps, though, remember that it won’t always result in a calm, happy kid, but that’s not really the goal. The goal is having a kid who has emotions, knows it’s okay to have emotions, and has some clue about what to do with her emotions.
That’s my goal for myself, as well. We can do it! Señor Secondthoughts is here to cheer us on.  

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9 thoughts on “Señor Secondthoughts”

  1. I didn’t learn how to process my own feelings as a kid, or even identify what I was feeling a lot of the time, and wow, it has really been difficult to learn how to help my kids process their own emotions as I learn to deal with mine. Thank God for therapy and good therapists and getting to learn to do better both for myself and for my kids. (Have you read The Body Keeps the Score? It explained so many things about me that I didn’t even recognize previously.)

    One area related to this where I struggle is figuring out how involved I need to be/they need me to be in sitting with the emotion and then letting go. I tell my kids that it’s okay to feel angry/sad/frustrated/etc etc but it’s not okay to take it out on other people, physically or otherwise. And I tell them I can talk with them if they want, or just listen to them if they want, but sometimes there comes a point where they just need some time by themselves. I have a hard time telling them that or encouraging them to take that time without it feeling like a punishment (at least for my daughter, who is incredibly extroverted, unlike me).

  2. “Part of the reason I want to fix things as quickly as possible is because my kid’s strong feelings elicit strong feelings in me; and sometimes, that’s actually what I’m trying to manage: My own feelings, not my kid’s.”

    I realized this recently, and it changed a lot.

    I also realized that the specific feeling I was trying to manage was the sense that if my kid is acting up I’m a horrible and inept parent, my child is doomed, and there is some invisible chorus of Perfect Moms chanting their judgement behind me.

    I have a daughter who is The Lord Testing Me Incarnate, and since I’ve mellowed out and tried accompanying her Big Feelings rather than scolding or dismissing them I’ve seen a complete change in her.

    (Having a therapist as an outlet for my own Big Feelings on helps, too.)

  3. It’s so good when going through the process you describe ends like it did this time, but yeah, it’s worth going through it even if it doesn’t. I don’t have as much experience as you, but reading Janet Lansbury’s blog I learned enough to turn around my relationship with my oldest child and be off to a much better start with the younger ones. It can be very frustrating at times, but it’s liberating when I 🥫 detach myself from their feelings (they’re not mine! Even when they’re angry with me!).

  4. Simcha, there is so much wisdom here. I’m grateful for how authentic you were in mentioning how you would have dealt with this situation in the past. The way you chose to deal with your daughter in this situation is so beautiful. Not only beautiful, but it brought me to tears, as I am dealing with issues of empathy and sympathy. This one really packed a punch: it helped me to see God’s mercy for me more clearly. Thank you so much for this post.

  5. My parents, and especially my in-laws, punished kids for bad feelings. My father-in-law was an emotionally abusive drunk and my mother-in-law was merely emotionally abusive. As a result, my husband is almost entirely incapable of dealing with any negative emotion, especially of the ‘this is really annoying now but won’t be so later.’ Everything is either perfect or grounds for nuclear war. This, as you can imagine, has not made living with him easy and has seriously damaged his ability to be a parent. I have done as well as I can with our sons, but they will lead damaged lives because their grandparents failed to follow your excellent advice here.

    “The sins of the fathers,” etc.

  6. Dang this was interesting! When one of my kids was in the throes of his reactive attachment disorder, I did have this technique in my bag of tricks. But that’s all it was for me at the time – one more tactic to stop the seemingly incessant meltdowns. Sometimes this would work and sometimes it didn’t. I rarely tried to stop him from being sad or angry, and honestly, I was mostly just trying to stop him from disrupting the family peace. Other times I definitely was trying to change his behavior and stop him from pounding his head into the floor or stop him from kicking, punching, or head butting me. And many times, I wouldn’t have any empathy in me left to give him and all I could do was ignore him or, if he was hurting himself, bring him over to the bean bag chair and let him pound his head if that’s what he felt like doing.

    I certainly didn’t understand why he’d get so upset over, say, having a blue stripe down the side of his sweatpants (or whatever), but pretending I felt empathy and voicing my understanding that he needed a hug (or to sit on the couch with mommy and cry) also helped me to realize I was dealing with a broken little soul and not one who understood that he was “a beautiful little boy, made in the image and likeness of God,” which was how I began greeting him each morning. In other words, what began as a tactic of feigning empathy actually got me feeling genuine empathy.

    Interestingly (and I suppose not surprisingly), he is the kid who today is most in touch with his emotions. I keep telling him he’d make an excellent teacher or therapist.

    1. Philly area,
      That is quite a transformation you underwent! Thank you so much for sharing that story. It is beautiful. It also reminds me that I don’t have to take seriously my own insecurities about talking with others about emotions.

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