A child’s feelings can be scary, like an uncontrolled and uncontrollable beast. For this reason, when kids are very young, one of the first things they are told is to tame this beast – to stop crying, to contain their anger, to calm down. Later, when some of our kids have health concerns, it can be unclear what they’re “supposed” to do with their emotions. Are they allowed to sob about the unfairness of their situation or do parents and doctors and friends and the rest of society expect them to be stoic, holding back negative and ugly emotions?
One thing I’ve seen over and over again is that the “best” way for children with health challenges to express their emotions is extremely nuanced and personalized. For some children, the only way to feel safe during treatments or doctor appointments is to temporarily pack away their emotions. For others, they have packed away so many emotions that their storage is full and these emotions find others ways to surface – as outbursts of behaviors, or trouble in school, or friction with parents.
I find that one key in these situations is for parents and caregivers to support the child’s needs. We can make safe places for our children to express difficult emotions, but not necessarily insist that children use this space. With this approach, the child who needs distance from fears that are too big to handle or sadness that threatens to overpower them can choose to keep these feelings quiet until they’re ready to start examining them in their own way, in their own time. And the child who is ready to express emotions or who needs to show these emotions knows that you will be there to help absorb and process them.
Especially when a child has serious health concerns, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to emotions. Insisting that a child “get it all out” risks releasing feelings that are too big or too complex for the child to handle. But insisting that a child put on a happy face and soldier through their challenges risks isolating a child with these same big feelings. Instead of forcing either outcome, just make a safe space. Make space for your child to be heard and respected in their push and pull with emotions. Show that you appreciate their struggle. Show that you are willing to join them on their journey. And show these children that no matter how they choose to deal with their feelings surrounding health, illness and treatment, that you will love them no matter what.