Over the past several days my household has shopped for, dressed for, attended and/or cheered for three winter concerts, one winter dance, one ugly-holiday-sweater day, one holiday jammies day, one Walnut Room dinner, two holiday food drives, one holiday coat drive, one gingerbread house-making party and at least four other things I’m probably forgetting.
All of which makes us incredibly blessed, utterly typical and, frankly, exhausted.
My 9-year-old son went from bingeing on Frango mints to sobbing, exhausted, into his pillow in about 4 seconds flat Thursday night, and all I could think to do was channel my inner Ellen Griswold: “I don’t know what to say, except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery.”
Not really, of course. Misery is a wild overstatement. But when I tried to help my little guy pick a word that best explained what he was feeling, the word he came up with was “overwhelmed.”
That sounds about right.
Recently, social worker Caryn Curry, from Lurie Children’s Hospital’s Center for Childhood Resilience, joined me for one of my weekly Facebook Live discussions.
We talked about creating an emotionally healthy climate at home, a topic that feels relevant all year-round, but especially so right now, when the demands on our time are greater, the expectation of joy is higher, the time spent together is increased (kids home from college, kids off school, visiting relatives).
A few of the points she made struck me as so essential and so helpful that I wanted to share them here.
“We have a relationship with feelings in this culture that is fraught with misinformation and, quite honestly, fear,” Curry said. “If you think about the way kids learn about emotions early on — ‘Stop crying,’ ‘You’re being overly sensitive’… we learn to mute feelings.
“Kids learn some feelings are good and some are bad,” she said, “when in fact, they’re part of who we are, physiologically, as human beings.”
We don’t need to, in fact we shouldn’t, Curry said, talk ourselves or our kids out of being sad, angry, anxious in any given moment. We can, and should, help ourselves and our kids recognize and name those feelings as legitimate.
“I feel sad right now.”
“I feel anxious right now.”
“I feel overwhelmed right now.”
“Obviously we want to teach kids how to express them responsibly,” Curry said. “But the first step is, ‘Oh, you’re sad? There’s nothing wrong that I’m sad. There’s nothing wrong that I’m angry.’”
And here’s a really huge thing.
“There doesn’t always have to be a reason for me to have the feeling that I’m having,” Curry said. “Again, it’s part of how my body just functions.”
One of the ways we can become more adept at recognizing and talking about our emotions, Curry said, is to ask more specific questions when we’re talking about our days.
“Some families at dinner (will say), ‘Tell me about a time when you felt fear today — at school, on the way to or from school. What was that like? What did you do?’” she said. “‘Tell me about a time you felt sad today.’ ‘Tell me about a time you felt joy today.’”
She also talked about re-evaluating the way we approach anxiety.
“We have a culture that says anxiety is bad and we have a goal to get rid of it,” Curry said. “Well, we can’t get rid of it. Fear, anxiety is part of who we are as human beings. To suggest we can get rid of those parts of ourselves does a disservice.”
We can listen to it. We can pause and take a couple of deep breaths in the face of it. We can try to limit the things in our life that trigger it. But we should stop trying to blot it out like a cold virus. It lives in us for a reason.
Curry also talked about our relationship to failure, which she said too many kids live in fear of.
“Failure is a function of doing things new,” she said. “It’s a function of taking risks. And how do we best grow? If we’re just going through life swimmingly, everything’s fine, where’s the growth in that?”
Curry said she once watched a video in which Sara Blakely, the CEO of Spanx shapewear, talked about her dad asking her every day after school for an example of a time she’d failed that day. If she didn’t have an example, he told her, she hadn’t taken enough risks that day.
Maybe something to bring up over turkey. Maybe something that will resonate with a kid home from college or an uncle who’s struggling at work or a child who feels overwhelmed by algebra.
I hope her words are helpful to you. They struck me as incredibly so.
Feel your feelings. Let your kids feel their feelings. Accept anxiety as a part of the human experience. There’s no shame in mistakes.
Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @heidistevens13.