Want Your Kids to Evict Negative Feelings? First, Give Them Time to Pack.
Why wallowing is good for the soul.
It was 5:30pm and my phone rang. It was my husband.
“Hey, where are you?” he asked, his voice strained.
“I’m at home, why?”
“You know Alex was supposed to be at the church at 5 for the campout, right?”
“No, it was 6.”
“No, it was 5! Matt just called me wondering where Alex is! The troop has been waiting on him for a half hour!”
I grabbed my planner and flipped it open to my calendar.
He was right. I should have dropped Alex off thirty minutes ago.
I got off the phone with my husband, yelled at Alex to grab his camping gear and get in the car, and off we sped to the church to meet up with his Scout troop, my heart racing, my Inner Voice yelling at me.
You moron! It was FIVE, not SIX! A simple look at your planner could have told you that! You are such a screw-up! Now they’ve all been waiting on him, and by the time they get to their campsite they’ll have to set up in the dark. You’re that mom now. The one who can’t get her kids where they need to be on time. You are such a loser!
I was ticked at myself. I had let my son down. I had let my troop down. I was a loser.
I dropped off my stressed-out son under the accusing glares of irritated troop leaders, then headed for home. All alone in the quiet of the car, Inner Voice continued.
You suck. You can’t do anything right. You’re such a bad mom.
My Rational Brain tried to come to my defense.
No, you’re not. Stop this. You just made a mistake.
Shut up! said my Inner Voice. This isn’t just a mistake! This impacted half a dozen people, all because you were too lazy to check your stupid planner!
Now, now, Rational Brain reasoned, Most of the time you get kids where they need to go on time. It’s okay to slip up every now and then.
Shut UP! You SUCK!
No, YOU shut up!
Finally, I did what I do with my kids when they argue over a toy– I decided to let them take turns. In this case, I was the toy, so I decided I’d let Inner Voice have me for another five minutes, and then it was Rational Brain’s turn.
Inner Voice liked this decision.
YEAAAAH! YOU SUUUUUUCK!
“I really do suck,” I agreed. “I mean, I am the worst mom EVER. What is WRONG with me?”
Basically, I wallowed. For a full five minutes. And it felt GOOD to ignore Rational Brain for awhile. Inner Voice and I had a regular suck fest, and I made sure I fully felt every nasty, awful, horrible thing it had to say about me.
After five minutes, I felt thoroughly crappy, and my Inner Voice was tired and needed a break anyway. So I turned it over to Rational Brain.
Remember how you took food to that elderly neighbor earlier today? You’re a good person.
“Yeah, I guess that was pretty nice.”
And how about the 99% of the time you get your kids where they need to be on time? That’s a pretty good track record, wouldn’t you say?
“True. Overall, I’m a pretty responsible mom.”
Slowly, Rational Brain reminded me that, as usual, Inner Voice was a little overdramatic and hasty with its conclusions. In light of the evidence she so calmly presented, I had to agree.
But still, there’s something so primal and satisfying about Inner Voice. When I mess up, screaming at myself in my head is like scratching an itch. I know that scratching repeatedly over a long period of time will cause scarring, but just five minutes? Five minutes isn’t going to hurt.
In fact, I think it’s healthy to clean all that garbage out first before attempting an emotional recovery. It’s like letting a wound bleed for a bit before treating it so that it can push all the germs and bacteria out first. Or it’s like giving a tenant time to pack up before evicting them so you don’t have to deal with all the crap left behind after they’re gone.
I decided after that day that I’d give my negative feelings their due. I’d scratch the itch, let the wound bleed, give myself time to pack up all the crap I didn’t want moving forward. But once time was up, that was it. The new tenant of happy thoughts was moving back in.
As it turns out, kids can benefit from this approach too.
Not long after the late campout experience, I started realizing that I was Rational Brain-ing my kids whenever they’d get upset about something, and rather than helping the situation, I was making it worse.
“I can’t believe I failed that test! I suck!”
“Don’t say that, sweetie. You don’t suck. You just made a mistake.”
“Yes I do! I’m the WORST person EVER!”
“No you aren’t! Stop saying that! You’re a wonderful person!”
[Kid runs to room and slams the door.]
Yeah, not super helpful, huh? So the next time I faced an angry, frustrated kid, I decided to offer some empathy and a timed eviction notice instead.
“I messed up that game so bad. I let my whole team down. I hate myself.”
“Yeah, it sucks when you feel like you let other people down.”
“They all probably hate me. And they SHOULD!”
“I know you feel that way now, and it’s okay to feel that way. I don’t blame you. Actually, I think it’s good to feel really crappy for awhile. Why don’t you decide how much time you want to feel crappy for, and then you can start thinking happier thoughts after you’re done?”
“Okay. Probably FOREVER.”
“Forever is a long time. How about we try 30 minutes and see how you’re feeling after that?”
I’ve found that not only does this approach help my kid work through their negative feelings in a healthy way, but it also reduces my stress and tension about the situation, because I don’t feel pressured to “fix” them right away. Instead, I can give them the space to feel what they need to feel, and then, after a time, I can help them get to know their Rational Brain (for most kids, their Rational Brain is a total stranger to them).
It’s okay to wallow in negative feelings for awhile. Just give them a deadline. Once time is up, kick them to the curb and move on with your life.