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Whose Emotions Are Loudest? Remember that anxiety is contagious when you’re helping your child through a stressful situation.

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Photo by Przemyslaw Iciak

When my husband and I first married, we had a beagle, Charlie. We lived in a duplex at the time, and on the other side of the fence was another dog. Charlie and his best dog-friend would cross under the fence and play together all day while we were at work.

One day, the other dog moved away, and Charlie lay on his side for the entire day, snout underneath the fence, howling and crying because he missed his friend. If you aren’t a dog person, you will find it ridiculous that I sat next to Charlie on the ground, petting him and comforting him in his grief. The longer I pitied that dog, the longer the wailing went on.

I remember my husband coming home from work to find me in my grief counselor role. I remember him putting down his work stuff and coming to the backyard with a tennis ball. For the next hour, he threw that tennis ball for Charlie to cheer him up and lift him out of his dramatic lament. I found it notable that my husband could change the energy so quickly with a tennis ball.

Fast forward 20 years, and I am taking my child for a nasopharyngeal COVID test (the one that feels like a toilet brush going into the brain or eye socket). On the way to the test, I explained what it would be like. I pointed out that he would need to be very still and it would only have to be done once. I reaffirmed that some things in life we don’t want to do but we suck it up and do them because we have to. I asked him “are you nervous?” And “are you OK?” And “are you worried?”

Finally he raises his voice from the back seat of the car and says “You’re the one who’s making me nervous and worried and anxious with all of your questions! Can you just be quiet?”

No doubt my kids have two different parents: one who will drown with them in grief and anxiety, and one who will recognize the grief/anxiety and then help them move on.

Of course, there is value to sitting with my kids in their emotions. I feel like I’ve done as good a job as I can teaching them to recognize and acknowledge the roots of their emotions. The irritability that is really a feeling of inadequacy. The anger that is actually shame. The sarcasm that covers up hurt feelings. The grumpiness that is easier to portray than fear. The cynicism that hides regret.

I spent the early years of their lives teaching them words to help them recognize their inner selves. “I am very angry with you.” “I am disappointed we can’t go to the beach.” “I am strong, and loved, and important.” I have also taught them that emotions are contagious, and how to distinguish their own emotions from the emotions of the group. But have I taught myself the same things?

As they’ve gotten older, sometimes I need to step away and let my kids manage their own feelings. Sometimes my anxiety about my child’s anxiety about getting a COVID test, for example, amplifies the anxiety in the room exponentially.

Sometimes, in other words, I need to shut my mouth and trust my child to handle his own feelings.

And then I need to put my money where my mouth is and recognize my own emotions. Sometimes it is my own anxiety about my child’s reaction to a negative experience that needs managing. My child is doing just fine on his own. He is learning to suck it up and get a COVID test, because it’s what he has to do that day.

Sometimes it takes someone else to point this out to me, and I’m grateful to have family members and friends who will do so. Sometimes another person needs to just take a deep breath and start throwing the tennis ball.

My kid did just fine with his COVID test, by the way, even though he didn’t enjoy it. But after the test, he handled the recovery in his own way, as well, by asking if he could say a bad word as we drove away from the testing site. A deep breath and a weak expletive later, and he was proudly looking out the window on the drive home, checking one more hard thing off his list.

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