Why is it that when children get upset, adults have a tendency to cut themselves off from their own memories of feeling that way? When I started out as a teacher, admittedly I thought that my role in the face of a child’s impending tantrum was to get very quiet and try to reason with the child. When that didn’t work, I tried ignoring the behavior, because I didn’t want to give it “reinforcing” attention. When that didn’t work, I wondered what to do… until I realized that many situations that we experience with the children in our care can be compared to what we experience in our adult lives. When I feel sad or angry, do I want to be told (through words or body language) that I’m being unreasonable? Do I want someone to explain a different point of view while I’m swept up in my feelings? Do I want someone witnessing my feelings to walk away?

I have a mentor that showed me the magic of “going there” with crying or raging children. A child would fling accusations at another child and her face would melt into sympathy for both parties. A child would mourn the separation of school drop-off and she would say, her voice full of emotion, “You want to go home? Of course you do! I WANT you to go home!! Let’s talk all about your mommy, let’s write her a note about this!” It’s powerful to be fully seen and understood, to know that another person is on your side, and thinking the best of you. You’re not trying to convince the child to feel differently, you’re not trying to change their circumstances, you just keep them company while they experience them.

The other day I observed a child gazing longingly out the window at a huge rainstorm. “I want to go outside!” he announced. “We’re not going outside, it’s too wet,” replied the adult. “But I want tooooooo,” he whined, starting to kick his feet. The adult with him said nothing but I could feel the internal eye-rolling, as if to say, “Here we go again…” I turned to him and matched his voice, with emotion and volume, “I WANT TO GO OUTSIDE TOO!” He stopped, eyes wide. I continued, “It looks like so much fun! The water is so deep, I want to jump in it and get really wet!” He paused. I smiled. He said, “Me too.” And that was the end of it.

Did I really want to go out and get wet? No. But I had to put myself in his shoes and guess, why did he want it? You meet the feeling with feeling, turn towards it rather than away. I went to a workshop last year where the speaker pointed out that navigating difficult feelings is like being on a raft in a stormy sea. First of all, you can’t have an expectation that the ocean should always be calm. When the surf gets big, you might wish you could get off the raft but there is no off. If you can learn to relax and ride the waves as they come, to accept what is, you are much more likely to stay afloat. And every time you practice embracing the rough patch, you get a little better at it. Eventually, the calm that you want to lend to a child starting to lose control won’t be a costume that you wear to mask your own upset feelings at their behavior, it will be your genuine internal landscape, developed through the habit of empathy.