The train analogy and a child’s difficult emotions

The analogy goes like this:

  • Difficult feelings are tunnels, and we are trains travelling through them.

We have to move all the way through the darkness to get to the—calm, peaceful light at the end of the tunnel.

It sounds simple, but it’s way easier said than done.

So often when our kids are struggling with a difficult feeling—sadness, anger, fear, embarrassment, loneliness, guilt—we try to logic them out of it. We explain why they’re overreacting, or how WE know it will turn out just fine in the end.

We’re trying to help our children, of course, but if we peel back the layers a bit, I think we’ll find that what we’re really doing is trying to make OURSELVES feel better. Because our children’s pain hurts US so deeply, makes US so acutely uncomfortable.

Back to the analogy: If emotions are tunnels and we are trains going through them, then we NEED to keep moving all the way through to the other side. 

What we adults often do when facing our own emotional struggles is attempt to get out of the tunnel early—banging on the sides, ignoring the cavernous echo, and wondering with confusion why we can’t see daylight yet.

Sometimes we squat in the darkness, close our eyes, and just pretend we’re not in a tunnel at all. Everything is just fine, thank you very much.

Sometimes we do a whole host of other things—eat ice cream, drink wine, shop online, run marathons, binge watch Netflix, play games on our phones or scroll mindlessly through Facebook—to distract ourselves from the fact that we’re in a tunnel in the first place.

But none of those things gets us out of the tunnel, does it?

Then, when we FINALLY let ourselves scream and wail and bang our fists and crumble onto the floor and have a good cry, we suddenly feel so. much. better.
Same goes for our kids. We can’t teach them there’s some secret side exit when there’s really not. There is no way out except through, and it’s our job to guide them there. 
That’s why I didn’t say a word to my son. Instead, I just sat next to him as the ripples of anger melted into shaking and sobbing. When I thought it was OK to do so, I started rubbing his back—still without speaking. He kept crying and crying and crying.
As those tears flowed, I realized I had just done what Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate call “dancing our children to their tears.” In their book Hold On to Your Kids they write:
“…a parent must dance the child to his tears, to letting go, and to the sense of rest that comes in the wake of letting go…[a parent must] come alongside the child’s experience of frustration and provide comfort. The agenda should not be to teach a lesson but to move frustration to sadness…Much more important than our words is the child’s sense that we are with her, not against her.” 
With that in mind, I was actually delighted that my son was shaking with sobs because I knew that meant he was traveling through this emotional tunnel rather than getting stuck in it.
He cried and he cried and he cried.
Until he wasn’t crying anymore.

Building Resilience

I decided speaking would be OK now, so I asked my son if he wanted to make a plan. I told him I knew that bedtime tonight would be extra tough, but maybe we could think of some ideas together to help him through it.

Remember Your Job

So the next time your child is deeply frustrated, angry, or upset, remember what the job of a parent really is.

The job of a parent is to:

  • Provide comfort through the frustration.
  • Draw out our child’s cleansing tears.
  • Show empathy to our child’s struggle.
  • Allow the life lesson to be learned naturally—not through preaching.
  • Support our child’s journey through the emotional tunnel.

The job of a parent is NOT to get our child to stop crying as quickly as possible. Tears are a sign of parental success, not failure.

So rub your child’s back. Sit with them in silence. Stay alongside them as they chug chug chug through their tunnels of feelings. And be with them when they finally reach the calm, peaceful light at the end.
Source: Full article by McLaughlin, K.M. (2018) via FB @ https://pickanytwo.net/the-train-analogy-that-will-change-how-you-see-your-crying-child/
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