How to talk to sad, jealous, anxious kids

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.

Photo of sad bunny

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.

Photo of LegosOur 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!

13 Responses

  1. Simon
    | Reply

    I don’t have kids but I do have a puppy, so I relate, tremendously. lol

  2. Mj
    | Reply

    I love your insite and your ability to language these emotions.
    Great help to those parents who are frustraited and do not understand..

  3. JY
    | Reply

    Nice work, Karla, you’re spot on here! I have a current story about my 18 year old niece and her relationship with one of the girls in her small HS class. The girl (not my niece) is a mess, coping with a very public drama of daddy leaving mommy for one of her very own teachers at the school. Now daddy’s got a new baby with new wife & mommy has been rampaging her vindictive feelings about him everywhere she can. My niece has had a friendly enough relationship with the girl, who alternately goes from being introspective & sensitive & thoughtful to acting arrogant, dismissive & mean, until one day she found the little plastic animal figurine she’d given her as a token of friendship with its head torn off in her school (mail)box. This was an apparent jealous reaction to my niece’s “going over to the other side” (consulting with a particular teacher about spiritual/religious issues) all of which the girl claims to hate. The girl is smart & tough & unbending, often difficult for “nurturing” teachers. The latest in this emotional drama is her text message to my niece saying that she’d had it with the teacher and was going “take him down.” My niece is keenly aware this is not about the teacher at all but about the investment the girl had made in the friendship with her. In other words, the girl is behaving like a madly jealous jilted lover (like her mama). Someone needs to reach this girl to help her safely explore these feelings clearly out of control, not an easy order in the incestuously small environment that all of this is happening. However, it actually is a caring, loving “intentional community,” so we’ll see how well they can handle it…

  4. Karlacita!
    | Reply

    Ooh Judy! Those parents need a talking to!

    Jealousy, yeah, but I’m a little concerned about how much shame the girl must also be feeling, to have her family’s failures so out there where everyone can see them. And that she’s targeting an adult male for a comeuppance, ooh. I wonder if someone should warn him? She’s a little unstable.

    But I still think her parents need a talking to. That’s some terrible behavior on both of their parts!

  5. JY
    | Reply

    Terrible behavior on the parents’ part, you’ve got that right! How they’ve all managed to survive in this tiny community together, obviously not without huge costs… The teachers & counselors at the school have been on the “loving alert” about this girl, but the enormous stresses on her as she waits to hear from all the Ivy League schools she’s applied to are worrying…

    They need intervention by an Emotional SWAT team!

  6. Karla
    | Reply

    Ooh, I’m glad they’ve all created a sort of boundary around her. Wow. What betrayal she’s had to deal with.

    I hope she gets into a great university and can blow that popstand and find her own way in the world. However, some therapy would be marvelous! And let’s lock the parents in a rubber room and let them sort it out.

  7. Karly
    | Reply

    Dear Karla,

    I came across your work after studying the work of Dr. Gordon Neufeld, an attachment/development psychologist who also appreciates the value of emotions. (In fact, he says “emotions are the engine of development” and “are not a nuisance variable.” I love that!)

    Through his and your work, I have come to a new understanding and appreciation for the value of our emotions, for both my children and for myself.

    I’m highly sensitive, empathetic and empathic, and I feel strongly. I’ve felt shamed for much of my life about this, and only in recent years have I learned to celebrate my high sensitivity. A large part of my healing journey has been befriending my emotions.

    This story you shared here reminds me of Dr. Neufeld’s work which is also about validating and allowing feelings – and letting them all “mix up.” What I appreciate about this story – and what I’ve learned from both of you, whom I consider my emotional mentors – is that it shows how validating, mirroring and allowing feelings – even the “difficult” ones – helps our children mature and grow and feel seen, heard and understood. It gives me a map to follow, which is helpful.

    Because of what I’ve learned from both of you, I feel comfortable now letting my children have and feel “negative” emotions without trying to either talk them out of them, minimize them, edit them, dismiss them, or prop them up with positive talk. This is a huge change for me! It is a gift to allow them their feelings, and to allow myself mine. I also feel less stress/tension because I was always trying to control their life experience so that they only experienced “positive” feelings.

    I can see how it’s helpful, necessary and healing to let them have their feelings – even when it’s uncomfortable for me, as an empath who feels them. I use your boundary setting tool daily to separate my feelings from others’, so I can let other people have their feelings without taking them on. (This was a primary reason why I didn’t want them to have negative feelings – I would feel them and feel bad, and I would feel them and feel responsible for them.)

    My husband was talking about vaccines they’re developing to erase memory and to get rid of the nuisance of feelings. This thought makes me shudder, because to me, it means losing our very humanity, our capacity to be fully awake and alive.

    Warmly, Karly

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Karly,

      Thanks for your comment! As you speak about creating a healthy emotional environment for your children, I’m thinking about how often children are not allowed to have their emotions simply because the adults in their lives don’t know what to do with those same emotions.

      I’m in the midst of creating a set of Emotion Cards for Kids, and as I am preparing the cards for jealousy and envy, both of which alert us to unfairness, insecurity, and disloyalty, I am a bit stymied. In so many cases, children are simply not given the right to speak about the unfairness and inequalities they see. As I look at the questions to ask these emotions and ways to explain them to children, I’m really struggling with the reality of just how backward the emotional education of children still is — and how many children’s emotional awareness is stifled and silenced in deference to the lack of awareness of the adults around them. Wow!

      I’m glad you’re out there sharing your empathy and emotional awareness. Our world really needs both!


  8. Jackie
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,
    This article and all the comments have given me some different things to really think about. I have been feeling some embarrassment after sharing something with someone, which I guess was kind of “pushing” them away, or at least alerting them to the fact that I had become uncomfortable by their kindness and allowing me the space to express myself or explore different thoughts/feelings. It brought up a past betrayal by someone else who started out as “kind” and then just fell off the Earth. I was balancing a level of caring which was arising out of the gratitude of being allowed to “be”, but I also didn’t know my place, or my boundary. I began feeling insecure and like I wanted to protect myself then it all just hurt even more. Too many conflicting feelings at once. I saw that protectiveness and suspiciousness, along with insecurity are under jealousy and envy. I had never thought that could be what was going on or was linked to my feeling. I have found the particularly nurturing and kind type brings up a sense of mistrust in me and I either want to kind of ‘destroy’ or disempower them in my mind, or destroy the relationship at least by pushing them away with my honest disclosures about whats going on inside me in relation to them… this jealousy and.or envy parading around? or just a flashback of a past hurt (which hasn’t fully healed) being revisited?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Jackie,

      When you say “nurturing and kind,” I think of a good parent, so it is possible that there is jealousy in there, which can protect your connection to love and nurturing. But jealousy tends to help you create more closeness and a stronger relationship, rather than requesting that you cut all ties. However, since there is both anger and fear in your action, I think you’re right to look at the two emotions that are a blend of anger and fear. It could be, however, that the anger and fear need to be looked at individually.

      Since this is a behavior you can track to a previous incident, it would be helpful to use Burning Contracts to see what’s in there. The embarrassment you describe means that your shame is awake to what happened, and that behavioral change is possible! Also, shame may help you understand that it’s never too late to make amends. Yay shame!

  9. Jackie
    | Reply

    Is it safe to say that if you are feeling a healthy amount of jealousy with a friendship or relationship that its perhaps an alerting to the fact that the relationship might really not be very secure or supportive?
    Also, this might sound far out, but could one actually be feeling jealousy within a relationship because the other person is actually jealous of you or towards you?

  10. Jackie
    | Reply

    got another theory :)
    if one does not validate and acknowledge their own talents and gifts (is not in touch with their envy), could this be the cause of bringing/experiencing people in your life who are evoked to jealousy towards you?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Jackie,

      I think you’re right that healthy jealousy and envy in a relationship would be alerting you to something real. And I think that if someone was constantly jealous, it might set you off into your own jealousy, since emotions are social phenomenon, and are easily shared!

      But in your second note, you talk about acknowledging ones’ own talents and gifts, and that’s actually the job of contentment. Healthy envy helps you take care of yourself in relation to recognition and material support, but contentment is the emotion that helps you identify and validate your own talents and gifts.

      Unhealthy contentment or self-aggrandizement, which you see in people with inflated self-esteem (think of bullies and narcissists) generally evokes envy and jealousy in some people, but healthy contentment probably wouldn’t (unless people are sort of habitually insecure, and then it kind of doesn’t matter what you do!).

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