Stop crying and other useless directives

child-594519_1280“Stop crying!” The words were blurted by a very frustrated man in response to the ongoing wailing of two little boys. The pair were hanging over an upper verandah whilst he was just below them packing something into a car. The older one – perhaps four -was genuinely upset – he sounded heartbroken. Mr Two-ish’s crying, though loud, perhaps had overtones of a tantrum in it.

I caught all of this in a 20 second walk by their house one morning recently. I heard the crying first, then saw them, then heard the guy speak. As I was nearly past I noticed what I assumed to be the mum sitting at a table just behind the kids. Then I was gone.

Obviously I don’t have the whole story, but the strong thought I carried away was how useless a directive “Stop crying!” was in those circumstances – or indeed, in many others. It brought no change in behaviour and resolved very little of the tension. It certainly stopped no crying and taught no one anything. If anything, I think the noise escalated as I walked away.

It’s rarely useful to tell people to stop crying or even stop feeling any emotion. That just buries feelings underground where they unhealthily fester. Unfortunately, feelings need to be felt. The only way you can deal with any emotion is to feel it – and then choose what to do about it.

If I got to replay the scene again (and assuming I was coaching the man), a more useful idea would be to help the boys evaluate how worthy this current feeling is of ongoing wallowing. But start with acknowledging their pain! “Hey guys, you’re really sad about this. But I’m only going for a day! It’s not worth getting upset about. Go and play some soccer!” Something like this would recognise the feelings, but then attempt to channel the overreaction into less painful and more appropriate actions.

Comparing the situation to other things which might also make you feel sad (or angry or whatever) would also help teach the boys about suitable responses. A friend told me of a school principal who taught her kids: “If you’re dying it rates up here (hand above head); if you’ve scratched your knee it’s down here (hand at knee).” She’s letting them know that some things are more worthy of intensity than others. In the same way, this man (or the woman!) could have said, “Boys, I’m not leaving forever! I’m not even going for a week! I’ll be back before bedtime tonight. Go and play, this isn’t worthy crying about.” That would have taught them that everything needs perspective and built towards their long term healthy handling of emotions.

It’s not just the kids we do this to. Although we’ve replaced “stop crying” with more sophisticated terms, as adults we really haven’t worked out how to help ourselves or others have an appropriate emotional response and then move on either. We either over-indulge people and let them go on and on and on….or we politely ignore their pain and tell our friends to toughen up. Both denying and indulging our feelings continually is unhelpful.

This past week, one of my friends got some news which long term may be quite releasing but also offers some challenges to deal with. I was conscious of trying to allow for a range of responses in her, not just celebrating. That’s my attempt to create emotional health for us. Facing and naming the difficult feelings is uncomfortable and vulnerable, but ultimately the best thing to do. Here’s to the day we can all handle our emotions – the ones we like and the ones we don’t – with skill and grace.