There’s a Far Side cartoon set in a movie theater: Ketchup bottles are personified and they are sitting in the audience watching a horror movie where another bottle is lying on the floor, broken with it’s insides flowing out. A parent turns to her or his son and calms his childhood fears by assuring him that it’s “not real ketchup.”
It’s a primal parent reaction—shielding one’s child from anything that may cause suffering, but many parents seem to go out of their way to protect their children from lots of strong feelings, even though these feelings arise again and again throughout their child’s lifetime. Letting a child express anger, feel fear, or just be sad can be excruciating to watch, but if done with care you can be providing a very important lesson.
Parents often talk to me about tantrums. These are incredibly difficult to witness and you want to do anything, ANYTHING to calm your child. They’re clearly unhappy and they are letting you, the neighbors, and everyone in the Food Coop know it. I’m going to save the How To Handle Tantrums or How To Deal with Judgmental People While I’m Just Trying to Parent for another post. Right now I want to focus on just how difficult it can be to watch our kids suffer—but how helpful it can be to allow them to have that terrible, horrible, no good feeling while you are there to ensure they are safe.
Two clients, two standout memories of childhood fears:
- Client 1: 30ish adult male vividly remembers being eight years old and constantly playing practical jokes on a father who, let’s just say, did not appreciate his sense of humor. They were getting ready to go out and Carl—we’ll call him Carl—said he’d get in the car while his father locked up. Instead, Carl hid behind the fence. His father got in the car and drove away. Carl recalled running in circles on his front yard in tears—feeling forgotten. What seemed like an hour, but was probably thirty seconds, his father drove back up and said, “I hope you learned your lesson.” Carl experienced extreme fear, but he was all alone and had little empathy once his father came back.
- Client 2: Late twenties, adult male—George—spoke about going to his grandfather’s funeral when he was about the same age as Carl was during the car scene. This client sat at the wake at nine years old, experiencing death for the first time. Not fully taking in what was happening, but grappling with how sad, worried, and upset he was. His uncle sat next to him and told some stories about his grandfather. He wasn’t told to stop being sad, that there was nothing to cry about, he just sat with him–witnessed the strange scary feelings that the child was having without judging them or telling him to not feel that way.
The point I’m trying to make is that your child is going to feel sad. He’s going to be extremely scared. She’s going to have such an extreme mixture of feelings that she doesn’t know whether to scream or cry. If they can let them experience this in front of you—if you can handle it—then they are going to know that feelings aren’t scary. They are not going to tamp those feelings down and then have them come out in unexpected, unhealthy ways.
A big part of how I work is to encourage all my clients to let me know if I do anything that gets them angry. It’s hard to explain how often clients try to protect their therapist from their ‘unacceptable’ feelings. If I can help you feel safe to let me know that I looked at the clock once too often or that you are hurt that I didn’t give extra time for a session, then that gives us really valuable material to work with that you can then take into your world and other relationships. If that can happen between two adults and be healing, imagine what it’s like for a child, what it was like for George, to know that they can show their parent their worst self, and still be okay.
Still, I gotta wonder why Mama or Papa Ketchup bottle took their son to that horror movie anyway. Are you asking to have trouble getting your kid to sleep tonight?
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be. He works with all men but has a particular focus on providing counseling for fathers (and guys hoping to become dads!)