Okay, so my husband Tino and I are living in what I call “unintentional community,” or a condo complex. It’s a nice place near his new job, it’s month-to-month so we can look for a home, and it’s got trees and lovely plantings everywhere, so I’m not complaining.
However, we’re right on top of people, so we hear the goings on, especially with a neighbor family whose kids play outside. The parents are cool and friendly people in their 30s, and they’ve got two boys. The older boy is five, and the baby is just under two. The boys have very different temperaments. The baby is very adventurous and giggly, and the five year old is more careful, a little bit delicate, and he cries loudly when he’s scared or his feelings are hurt. A sensitive guy.
When the dad comes home from work, he and the boys play outside for about an hour, and over the weeks we’ve been here, a change is occurring. The older boy was the main play pal for his dad, but now the baby is walking and running, and it seems that dad is bonding a little bit better with the baby.
He and the baby will be crawling around in the ivy and laughing while the five-year-old stays separate and gets dramatic about falling or tripping or something. You can see the dad’s frustration at being called back constantly to attend to the older boy’s difficulties, and you can see that the older boy is trying to get his father back on his side, but he’s going about it all wrong.
Today, I heard someone yell loudly in a very mean way, “What do you think you’re DOING! You don’t take his toys! Get inside!” It sounded like an 11 or 12-year-old girl who was babysitting and hating it. But today’s a school day, so I looked outside, and it was the boys’ mom! I’ve never heard her yell like that, so it sounds as if the tension is increasing between the boys, even when Dad isn’t in the picture. Whoops.
This is a story that occurs every day, but how could it be different? Clearly, the older boy is feeling jealousy, envy, anger, anxiety, and grief. And he’s acting from all or most of them without any direction.
He’s a mess. But each of his emotions is true. He is losing his place in his most important love relationships (jealousy). He is losing his access to status and material possessions (envy). He is losing his old sense of self and his place in his world (anger). He doesn’t know what bad thing will come next (anxiety). And he is experiencing a serious loss (grief). It’s all true.
So how does a parent or a teacher help? First, of course, is to accept the emotions as true, even if they’re annoying. If you know what the emotions mean, you could ask the boy, “Do you sometimes feel like your parents like the baby more?” or, “Do you think the baby gets more attention than you do?” or, “Wow, when my little sister was born, I was so sad! How did you feel when your brother was born? How do you feel now?”
If you give a child the chance to explore his emotions in a safe place, he will learn how to manage them without other people needing to yell at him.
I know it’s hard. Every one of us as parents has gone all wild-eyed and acted like an 11-year-old babysitter who wasn’t getting paid enough. We’ve all done it, and if our emotions are working as they should, we have also felt shame for doing it. So the practice for shame is to make amends. To apologize to our children and let them into the emotional backstage of our lives — so that they’ll know that there IS an emotional backstage, and that everyone struggles.
Our boy outside, he feels alone. But he’s not alone. We all struggle with our emotions in this emotionally-confused world, and we’re only alone if we lie to people and pretend we’ve got our emotions figured out.
Everyone needs training in emotions, and everyone needs a safe place to talk about them, so let’s make a safe place and change the world, yes?
I think I’ll see if our boy wants some Legos that I’ve got in the garage. Sensitive little people often love Legos, don’t you find? And you can talk about all sorts of stuff when you’re building with Legos. Sneaky!