“You’re alright, buddy!”
“That’s enough now!”
“Come on… it’s not THAT bad!”
“Where’s that big smile?”
“I’ll give you something to cry about!”
Have you ever heard any of these? Ever said any of these? That’s OK… but I’m going to ask you now to try and stop.
It turns out that crying is actually a good way of healing ourselves and that the people who know best what they need in terms of emotional offloading and stress-relief are our children. They come into this world with a very simple mechanism for offloading their stress and fears in the form of “emotional release”. So whilst babies use crying to signal an unmet need, once you have checked all of those obvious needs off… the unmet need may simply be that they need to relieve themselves of some sort of fear or tension. For a baby that might be caused by an unexpected sound or when you stopped eye contact at some stage during the day. We don’t need to know what it is or stress about what we did or didn’t do. All we need to do is Staylisten.
Staylistening is one of Hand In Hand Parenting’s 5 Listening Tools, the others being Playlistening, Special Time, Setting Limits and Listening Time (for you) and they are equally important so please do use them in conjunction with this one. What it means is to Listen empathically to children’s emotions. Research has shown that humans highly benefit from offloading stress and tension in the presence of a loving and empathic listener. The science is covered more in this Hand In Hand Parenting article but I want to speak from my own experience.
I grew up thinking you need to distract someone who is upset or overwhelmed and when I became a parent, I was quick to distract my first child from upsets and I hid any of mine from her. A friend of mine was the first to alert me that there was nothing wrong with crying and being upset and our children witnessing this gives them an understanding that their own emotions are OK too. Then I started hearing more and more about “emotional releasing” and children needing to empty their “emotional backpacks” through tears, tantrums, sweating and laughter and how kids who don’t regularly do this are more likely to display off-track behaviour (particularly hitting, kicking, biting, etc).
So I did some more research and I learned how to Staylisten by coming in close with warm eye contact and offering some form of empathic encouragement and validation such as “You’re really upset, I’m here… let it all out…” or “I know you really wanted that toy… it’s so hard, isn’t it?” Less is more on the verbal offerings, what matters is the warmth and connection that validates that those emotions are OK and that you will support them whilst they let them out. That’s the difference between crying alone which can feed into feelings of aloneness, abandonment and disconnection, which has the opposite effect of Staylistening.
I started this with my second child and at first I was really worried, as was my family as they obviously had different ideas about emotions but I soon started seeing these releases shortening and the way my child was much brighter afterwards. I still remember the moment when I knew I was doing the right thing. We were late for bed (this is unfortunately the worst time for parents but a highly likely time for kids to want to offload) and my son suddenly decided he wanted his Spiderman mask. I had NO idea where it was and I turned the house upside down and came back empty handed. He wasn’t happy and I was new to this (and hello, it was bedtime) so I didn’t welcome the release (as I probably would now) instead I searched some more until it was just too late. So I came back and sat him in my lap and said “I’m sorry… I can’t find it.” He cried and insisted on me finding it and I held him and said “I know… you really wanted that mask… it’s hard…” and he kept crying, etc and I was calm, empathetic, connected and kind on the surface but inside I was a little panicked and trying to think of my next steps, do I just put him in the cot and take a hard line? Do I look once more? Do I try some other mask? Then all of a sudden I felt him shudder, take a deep breath and he said “I go bed now, Mummy…” and he calmly gave me a kiss and a cuddle and went to bed and slept amazingly (which was rare)!
That was one of many of those beautiful “We are on the right track!” moments and he has the best emotional regulation of anyone I know. That’s the other great news… not only does offloading of big feelings help with off-track behaviour, that validation of emotion leads to better emotional regulation and emotional intelligence!
I can really see the difference between children who do offload and who don’t (it’s still very difficult for one of my children). I can see the difference in adults too which is why I can no longer live without my own weekly Listening Time. I credit Listening Time to helping me get my head around Staylistening to children and also in helping me to have the strength to do it at times, which it is OK to not always have. So please feel free to ask more about this and how to support yourself to support your child and don’t forget that laughter is also a really great release too!
Aunty Ask xx