Mother holding child

Holding a child until painful feelings subside is critical mothering work.

Here is a wild idea. But it will start to make sense as you read –

Mothers are like Cookie Jars! Mothers are Containers!

Yes! When it comes to our children’s feelings and helping them manage them, we mother’s are like washing machines or tumble dryers or mixing bowls or cookie jars.

We are required to open ourselves up to our children and help them manage all sorts of feelings. When we allow ourselves to do this for them, we teach them a lifelong skill for dealing with their feelings. We prepare them for a life of managing their feelings rather than trying to avoid their feelings or become overwhelmed by them.

There are many ways that people avoid feelings. Feelings can be numbed with substances like alcohol, food, TV, video games, sugar, street drugs, prescription drugs, promiscuous sex. Feelings can become overwhelming to the point of depression (numbing sadness) and anxiety (intense worry and dread) that is incapacitating.

The ability to help our children with their feelings cannot be undervalued. It is a critical skill for emotional intelligence.

So how do act as containers for our children.
1. We show our children that their feelings are okay. That we accept all feelings including from joy and excitement and pride to sadness, anger, confusion and helplessness. We tell them it’s okay and normal to feel hurt, disappointed, angry, in love, excited, silly etc.

2. We also help them understand that feeling and acting are two very separate things. It’s okay to FEEL angry but it’s not okay to ACT OUT that anger by being mean or hitting or hurting oneself. It’s okay to FEEL good about yourself and proud of what you have done, but it’s not okay to make another child feel inferior or bad about himself.

3. We acknowledge our children’s feelings without trying to make them go away (because the best way to make difficult feelings go away is to just let them be). We ca say things like:

“I am sorry you feel so angry today. It must be so frustrating”.
Or “Sorry that you are so disappointed”.
Or “I can only imagine how hurtful it is when your best friend turns on you like that”.
Or, “I can understand how it feels like your heart is breaking today.”

We stop ourselves from saying things like:
“Oh! Never mind. You’ll be fine.”
“There is always someone worse off than you!”
“Pull yourself together and put a smile on your face.”
“I don’t have time for this!”
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”

REFLECTION: What are some of the things you say to yourself or your children about feelings that are unpleasant?

4. We offer to help them “contain” their feelings. There is that container word again! Think about your arms as being strong walls around your child who is full of feelings that he or she cannot manage. Sometimes the act of containing your child’s feelings looks like:
a. Sitting on the couch quietly and holding a young child while she cries or fusses.
b. It can be simply listening to an older child.
c. It can be respecting the space of an adolescent.

All in all, the message is: “I am not afraid or freaked out by your feelings. I am here to help you manage them, not to make you feel bad or ashamed about them.”

1. Think about the way your parent responded when you had feelings that were difficult to manage.

2. Did it help? Or not help you?

3. How do you handle your feelings now? Do you let them be, or do you make them go away?

4. How can you help your child learn good ways of handling painful or overwhelming feelings?


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