Empowered to Connect

Remember — Sad Can Look Mad!

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Nearly four years into our Empowered to Connect parenting journey, we often find ourselves needing to go back to some of the basic concepts we learned at the beginning! It seems that whenever we face a challenging season with our children, our first reaction is frustration. Our angry feelings are quickly followed by the urge to increase structure, without also increasing nurture, which further disconnects us from our children and leads to even more frustration. While we feel like slow learners at times, at least we’re learning. And I think our recovery time is decreasing each time we go through this process!

One of the phrases we learned early on in our training was “sad can look mad.” We’ve lived the reality of this with one of our boys, but when our other son started exhibiting rage-filled behaviors recently, we didn’t immediately remember this. Instead, we allowed our frustration to take over and we attempted to increase the structure in our home without a corresponding increase in nurture. We tried a few things, from consequences (such as taking away screen time) to incentives (such as “We’ll go to the mall for lunch on Friday if we’re on time to school every day this week!!”). Not surprisingly, we weren’t seeing positive results.

The angry episodes continued, and pretty soon it was the parents that were demonstrating rage-filled behavior more than anyone in the house. I remember thinking to myself at one point, “We seem to have lost our way. What are we missing here?” Not long after, the ‘sad looks mad’ phrase popped into my head. As I looked at what was happening from his perspective, I realized that our son was likely feeling the annual departure of his grandparents for Phoenix especially keenly this year. Grandparents play such a special role in our kids’ lives; they are a safe place of unconditional love where our kids are accepted just the way they are. Given the struggles our little guy has had at school this year, it’s no wonder he was feeling extra sad that two of the people who ‘get’ him were no longer around.

Once we realized this, our path became clearer. We are being much more intentional about giving our kids opportunities to connect with their grandparents (thankfully technology gives us the ability to connect face-to-face!). And, we’re initiating more conversations about our feelings, even when it seems like everyone is doing fine. When it comes to big feelings, my first instinct is to avoid them. Like an ostrich with its head in the sand, I figure if we don’t talk about it too much then it won’t be a big deal. While I may experience short-term relief, the long-term implications of this approach are often damaging. I’m learning over and over that we need to be proactive as parents when it comes to our children’s emotional worlds. Instead of ignoring the situation and hoping it will go away, we need to face it head-on. This is the only way our kids will learn to manage and express their emotions in healthy ways.

While we can’t ignore or excuse the behavior that comes with the mad feelings, we can be compassionate and empathetic about the sadness they’re experiencing. We can choose to shift our focus from punishing the behavior to calming their big feelings and giving them a chance for a ‘re-do’ once things have settled down. Armed with these insights, we find ourselves more able to stay connected to our children — especially when their behaviors seem to call for the opposite response!

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