Give Them Permission to Feel

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In-between Ron and Hermione’s increasing tension, the formation of Dumbledore’s Army, Occlumency lessons, the horrors of Dolores Umbridge, Harry seeing inside Voldemort’s head, the building of a Death Eater Army, and preparation for the O.W.L.s, JK Rowling wrote a poignant scene between the three best friends in which they discuss Harry’s first kiss with Cho Chang. Cho starts crying after they kiss, and when Harry tells his friends what happened, Ron suggests Harry must just be a bad kisser. Hermione offered a different suggestion, listing the many complicated feelings that Cho had to be feeling, including still grieving over Cedric’s death. When she is finished, Ron responds, “One person can’t feel all that at once, they’d explode.” And once again, Rowling has brilliantly captured the complexity of human emotions.

As a society we are well aware that our emotions exist. We read about them. We talk about them. We share them over all forms of social media, regardless of who actually wants to know that we are excited, sad, angry, happy, etc. But do we really give each other permission to feel and to be honest about our feelings. When we meet acquaintances on the street and they say, “Hi, how are you?” how do we respond? Do we say, “Not great. I’m pretty much having the worst day of my life”? Or do we say, “Good, how are you?” And what would happen if we were honest with each other? I don’t think we’ll ever know the answer because I don’t think we want to know the answer. If we really wanted to know the answer we wouldn’t need a movie like Inside Out.

Inside Out might have hit a little too close to home for our family. In the movie, 11-year-old Riley moves with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco. We watch her emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear) learn to work together as Riley tries to cope with the emotions related to a huge life change. Her mother asks her to be brave for her father, who has his own struggles with the move that is affecting his family. We watch Riley bottle her emotions and in the process implode, leading to her eventual pre-adolescent decision to run away because Minnesota was the last place where she was happy. We also watch Joy discover that sometimes she can’t work on her own. We can’t be happy all the time. Sometimes we need the other emotions to balance us out and bring us to Joy. As we watched the movie I felt like I was watching my childhood play out before my eyes. My daughter felt like she was living the movie in real time.

When I was 11, my family moved from Illinois, where I was very happy, to Wyoming, where I was very unhappy for at least a year. I bottled my emotions in an effort to keep my parents happy, withholding a lot of my feelings when I really needed to share them with someone. Eventually the sadness brought me to happiness and I learned to love Wyoming and all it had to offer, but I would also say that the long term bottling of emotions continues to affect me to this day. Our daughter, who at 6 is much more aware than her 4-year-old brother of the permanence of the goodbyes she has been saying for the last couple of months, cried as she watched an older girl deal with the same complex emotions that she has been experiencing. Our daughter is excited about the changes ahead but she knows that she is going to miss her friends. And she knows that the distance between Indiana and Texas is too much for her to be able to just visit those friends that she misses at a moment’s notice. Watching the movie opened up a lot of discussion for our family, including us informing our daughter that she was not only allowed to be sad, but she needed to let us know when she was sad. It gave us the opportunity to validate her feelings and let her know that the most important thing for her to do was to be honest with us and to not try to hide her emotions.

As adults we tend to brush aside the emotions of children and teenagers as being overly dramatic. I watch my son and daughter dissolve into tears and tantrums over the smallest things and roll my eyes. Yesterday, my very tired four-year-old threw an epic tantrum most likely heard by the entire neighborhood because he wanted Cheetos and I told him no. My highly sensitive daughter will cry over what she sees as the smallest injustice. But I know that their feelings are very real to them. Our son has been struggling over the last month as his sister has seen friends and has had the opportunity to meet new people and he has felt completely left in the dust. All he has wanted is to be included and his sister hasn’t been interested. Last night we let him play with our neighbor’s grandson until after dark because he needed to play with another boy and he needed to play with someone who was completely interested in him and his interests. Last week when we were camping our daughter made a new best friend with a girl a couple sites down. (I will never cease to be amazed by how easily children can make new friends.) They played with each other at every opportunity for four days straight. When we were all leaving on Sunday, it hit her that she was never going to see this friend again because we were leaving Indiana. It didn’t matter that we probably would never have seen the girl again even if we were staying in Indiana. She understood that this was a permanent goodbye and it left her heartbroken. Nine months out of the year I spend five days a week with an amazing group of teenagers. I love my students and I love watching them grow from children into young adults as they progress through high school. And I see the emotion spectrum on a daily basis. We adults often write off their emotions as “drama” intended to drive adults crazy, but their feelings are immediate and they are real and when we don’t validate those emotions as real and instead encourage them to suppress them, they do so with disastrous results. We moved from Wyoming to Michigan the summer before my junior year from high school. It also was the summer that I had my very first boyfriend, a boy that I met at a summer youth event. He lived in Illinois and I believed that he would be just close enough that we could make long distance work. I believed I was in love with this boy that I had known for only a week. When I told my mom that I was in love with him she brushed if off. I was only 16 and couldn’t possibly be in love with him. In retrospect, the whole situation was ridiculous. I didn’t love him and the relationship was doomed to fail from the start. But I was sad, I was lonely, I missed my friends, and I just needed something to believe in. Eight months later, when a good friend in Wyoming committed suicide, I just bottled many of the emotions that I needed to let out. Yes I cried, and my parents let me stay home the day of the funeral, but nearly 20 years later I’m still seeking the closure that I desperately needed at 16. I needed to be encouraged to talk and share with people who got it. Instead, I bottled and pretended through that loss and the next loss a month later when my grandfather died.

I believe that our failure to give our children independence throughout their lives is destroying their ability to cope, but so is our insistence on them being happy at all times. So is our refusal to recognize their sadness and anger and fears and disgust as real, and emotions that need to be confronted. I know that I’m not the only parent who has said “I just want my kids to be happy,” but when we say that do we realize that we are sending our kids the wrong message? When we fail to give them independence we fail to help them learn how to make healthy decisions on their own. When we fail to let them feel hurt and sadness and tell them to get over it, we cripple their ability to deal with the hard stuff that life hands them. They will have their hearts broken. They may not make the team. They may not get the part that they want in the school play. They may not get into the college of their choice. They will lose friends a variety of ways. And as they get older they will face all the joys and hurts that adulthood will hand them. I watch students dealing with the whole spectrum of mental illness not just because of lack of independence, but because they have been taught their entire lives that they should be happy. Their parents have done everything they can to make things better when sometimes their kids just need to be allowed to be sad and to have that sadness recognized as real. We love our kids. We don’t want them to be hurt, physically or emotionally. But working through those hurts is what makes us stronger. It’s what makes our lives real. The Gospel very clearly tells us that Jesus was sad and angry and frustrated and that he experienced the worst physical pain devised by men. We rarely read about his joys, not because he didn’t experience joy, but because it is the other stuff that made him human. It is the other stuff that allows us to say, nearly 2000 years later, “God gets it.”

So thank you, Pixar, for reminding me that my job as a parent is not to keep my kids happy. My job is to help them learn how to navigate life.

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