When Your Child is Sad

Dealing with sadness effectively is a skill that will serve a child all throughout his or her life. After all, loss is an inevitable experience in this world – whether it is the loss of a favorite sweater, a cherished pet or beloved family member. Sadness is the appropriate response to loss. It is an emotional signal that says, “something is missing.” We feel sad until we have somehow reorganized our inner world to sew up the gaping hole left by the loss.

Parents can help children move through sadness. Moving through this feeling is important because failing to do so – staying stuck in sadness – can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety and panic, among other reactions. Unresolved sadness can also manifest as bodily pain and/or illness. For instance, unexplained tummy aches and headaches can be fueled by unresolved feelings of sadness. Parental support and guidance can help move sadness through and out of the child’s heart.

If your child is feeling sad, consider the following tips:

Let Your Child Know That’s It’s Okay to Feel Sad
Many parents are so distressed at seeing their kids upset that they want to cheer them up, reassure them and if possible, replace their loss, immediately. However, this approach only teaches children that sadness is an intolerable emotion. Unfortunately, such a message not only fails to teach a child how to handle feelings of sadness, but also increases the likelihood that kids will eventually run to escape measures like addictions when sadness threatens. Therefore, the first and most important step for parents to take is to calmly and compassionately welcome feelings of sadness. A simple acknowledgement of sadness can suffice, as in “you must feel so sad about that.” A period and a pause is necessary in order to convey acceptance, before continuing to speak. Avoid the word “but” since that word rushes too quickly to “fix” the sad feeling without processing it (see below for more about this). Allowing a child to feel sad also means letting him or her become temporarily withdrawn, unhappy and moody when suffering a loss. Refrain from trying to distract a sad child and from telling him or her to “cheer up.”

Provide Emotional Coaching
Dr. John Gottman, author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child explains that naming and accepting a child’s feelings helps the child to both manage and release painful emotion. Just saying something like, “that must make you feel sad,” or “it really hurts” or “that’s very painful” or “I know it’s very upsetting” can give a child a channel for acknowledging difficult feelings inside of himself.  When the child can acknowledge the feeling, half of it disappears immediately. The other half will slowly melt out of the child’s heart with the continued support of the parent. All that is required is to let the feeling be, without  minimizing it or trying to change it in any way. For instance, suppose a child is very sad because his best friend is changing schools. The parent is tempted to say things like, “don’t worry – you can still visit him and have a friendship over the computer and the telephone.” However, the parent who offers Emotional Coaching says things like, “Wow, that’s hard. It’s sad to lose a best friend. I bet you’re pretty upset.” The parent accepts whatever the child says, naming the feelings that seem to be present. Emotional Coaching often allows a child to go even deeper into the bad feeling before resurfacing with a positive emotional resolution. Perhaps the child in our example might say something like  “Yes I am upset! I’ll never have another friend like him! I hate everyone else at school. There’s no one I’ll be able to be friends with!” If this happens, the parent just affirms how awful all that must feel (“It’s such a disappointment that he’s leaving, especially when there’s no one else to take his place and you’re going to be all alone.”) Once the child hears his feelings being spoken out-loud, he usually self-corrects and starts to cheer himself up (“well, maybe I’ll spend more time with Josh Lankin”). If the child doesn’t pull himself out of the sad feeling, the parent who has provided emotional acknowledgement is now in a good position to help the youngster think things through: advice that is offered AFTER Emotional Coaching is often much more likely to be accepted. You can learn more about Emotional Coaching in the book Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe.

Provide Perspective
Parents can provide education and guidance AFTER providing Emotional Coaching. Trying to do it beforehand often backfires, as the youngster feels that the parent just doesn’t understand the pain he or she is experiencing. Without understanding, the parent has “no right” to start offering advice. After Emotional Coaching, on the other hand, the child knows that the parent really understands and accepts the feelings of sadness. Now the parent “has the right” to try to provide information or perspective on the matter. In a study of children with depression, it’s been found that optimism is one of the factors that help protect children from the effect of overwhelming sadness. Kids who experience intense feelings of sadness (e.g. the sadness that comes after parents’ divorce or separation), but remain resilient are those who believe that the sadness is temporary — and that tomorrow will bring better days. If you can teach your children to look at the next day as having the potential to bring a new beginning, then you can help your child manage sadness better. Some parents will be able to draw on a strong religious faith to bring this notion forward and some will draw it out from their own bright view of life. If you have neither, however, try looking at the writings of Norman Vincent Peale – the father of “positive thinking.” Peale wrote dozens of books on the subject of maintaining an optimistic outlook, but even a quick perusal of his famous “The Power of Positive Thinking” will fill you with a rich reservoir of ideas to share with your children.

Encourage Your Child to Seek Social Support
Friends are handy in all moments of grief! As kids grow older, they can look to friends as people they can trust with their innermost thoughts and feelings. Studies among children and adults confirm the value of social support when handling difficult situations in life. Encourage your child to always maintain a couple of close friendships and a couple of casual friends. Close friends can provide valuable emotional support through sad and troubled times and casual friends can provide welcome distractions. Model this practice in your own life.

Consider Bach Flower Therapy
Bach Flower Remedies provide emotional relief in the form of a harmless water-based tincture. A few drops of remedy in liquid (water, tea, milk, juice, coffee, soda, etc.) several times a day can help feelings resolve more rapidly. Star of Bethlehem is one of the 38 Bach Flower Remedies – it helps heal feelings of shock and grief. It can help kids deal with death, divorce, loss of a good friend and other serious losses. Walnut can help kids move more gracefully through changing circumstances. Gorse can help lift depressed feelings. Mustard can help with sadness that comes for biological reasons like shifting hormones, grey skies and genetic predisposition to low moods. Larch can help with sadness that is caused by insecurity and Oak can be used when excessive strain and effort leads to unhappiness. There are other Bach Remedies that can help as well, depending on how the child is experiencing sadness. Consult a Bach Flower Practitioner or read up on the remedies. You can purchase them at most health food stores and online.

Consider Professional Help
If your child is “stuck” in sadness and can’t get out of it despite your interventions, do consult a pediatric psychologist or psychiatrist. A mental health professional is highly trained to help kids move through sadness and get on with a happy, productive life!

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