Giving Your Child The Right to be Unhappy

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by Betsy Brown Braun

“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” Every kid knows that insipid song. It scrolls through a palette of feelings, “If you’re sad…If you’re angry…” always pointing to the refrain “but if you’re happy and you know it, shout hooray!” as if that’s the right way to be. I’m not so sure. What about all the other feelings, the big feelings — sadness, anger, fear, frustration, loneliness, to name a few — which fall under the umbrella of “unhappy”? What is the child supposed to do with those feelings and where do they fit in? Unhappiness, right along with happiness, is a normal part of the human condition. Yet, a child’s unhappiness is often difficult, if not downright painful, for a parent to endure. Why is that? What does the child’s unhappiness stir up in the parent?

The sinew that connects parents to child — the invisible string — is so strong that a mom feels her child’s discontent. Often it goes beyond normal empathy. His unhappiness can awaken her own unhappiness. Her own less-than-happy childhood memories might surface, difficult feelings that were unrecognized or unexpressed from way back when. Perhaps a dad feels less than competent, even a failure, assuming it is his job to keep his child happy. It is unbearable and so he fixes the feelings, making it all better for them both. Shout “hooray,” as the song demands…

The stresses of life make a child’s unhappiness hard for parents to stomach. And, yes, sometimes it is expedient to fix the cause of the unhappiness. Mom doesn’t have time or patience to tolerate her child’s journey through the negative feeling. Let me fix that. Hurry up and bring it here, and stop fussing.

Sometimes the parent resents the intrusion of unhappiness on what little time they have together. Just give him the candy. I don’t want our time together spent fighting.

The message in all these cases remains the same: you’re supposed to be happy…all the time.

No one is happy all the time. Most are happy sometimes. Everyone gets irritated, lonely, grouchy and all the rest. And sometimes people are fine. Nothing special, just plain fine. But when a child is mad or sad, or even just fine, and his parent reacts with concern, he grows to believe that those other feelings aren’t okay — that he should be happy. That is the desired norm.

Emotional literacy is one of the realms of development that must be woven into growing up. Children need to learn to recognize, name, access and live with myriad feelings, including the strong ones, all of which are healthy and normal. When a parent rushes to “fix it,” the child learns not only that a feeling needs fixing but that it’s his or her parent who has to make it all better. Rescuing a child from “big feelings” sabotages his or her growing ability to tolerate and swim through it. The child’s emotional literacy is stunted.

In reality, no one can really make someone else feel happy — or unhappy. People regulate their own feelings. Others help by offering ways to express, tolerate and even tame a strong feeling, but each of us is in charge of our own emotions.

Here are six ways to help your child build emotional literacy:

1. Pay attention to your own feelings. Learn to differentiate between your feelings and your child’s and keep the boundaries clear. Doing so will allow you to tolerate his or her negative emotions.

2. Do not make his or her feeling your feeling. Be empathetic without adding octane to the feeling. Acknowledge and validate, but do not fuel anger or sadness by adding your own frustration. Saying “I’m really upset that your play date got cancelled, too” just invigorates disappointment; it will also make your child feel responsible for your feelings, which is not the goal.

3. Teach your child to recognize and name feelings. Just like learning a new language, he or she will feel empowered by the ability to communicate — more in control, and less overwhelmed.

4. Support your child’s expression of all feelings, positive and negative. Saying, “Aw, c’mon. You’re not really mad about that, are you?” not only teaches your child not to trust his or her feelings, but also says negative feelings aren’t valid.

5. Pause before you jump in to cure unhappiness. Children need to learn how to soothe themselves. Lend an ear and offer suggestions for the expression and handling of the feeling. (Boy are you angry! Let’s go find something you can hit really hard to get those angry feelings out.)

6. Support resilience. Children need to experience the reality that in time they will feel better, though in the moment it’s hard to believe. (Right now you are so disappointed, I know that later you’ll feel better. Let’s go look at a book together.) Later, in a calmer moment, point out how before, your son or daughter was so disappointed — and now he or she is fine.

Betsy Brown Braun is the bestselling author of “You’re Not the Boss of Me: Brat-Proofing your 4 to 12 Year-Old Child” (HarperCollins, 2010) and the award winning “Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents” (HarperCollins, 2008 – now in its 4th printing). In private practice, she is a child development and behavior specialist, parent educator, and multiple birth parenting consultant with 40 years of experience in public and private early childhood and elementary education. You can learn more about Betsy, her books and her consulting practice at

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our children’s series, “Ruby’s Studio: The Feeling Show,” along with our beautiful children’s books, music, handmade dolls, and more. We want to be a truly helpful parenting tool… For you!

Posted in: Communication, Expert Advice, Emotions