You must feel sad. Human emotion is not capable of being monochromatic; one must accept the full spectrum of brain chemical combos. You cannot feel happy without allowing yourself to feel sadness as well. Instead of sitting with feeling sad or angry or frustrated or overwhelmed- we distract our selves. We eat, check our phones, throw ourselves into work, turn on the tv, have a drink. Repeat.
Socially this is acceptable; encouraged even. Especially if we're checking our work email.
Binge watching Netflix is a usual weekend, having the newest iphone is a status symbol, my supermarket sells more type of ice cream than fruit, beer is a international symbol for bros being men together and wine has literally been nicknamed "mummy juice". When when you finish the bag of chips, turn off the tv and put down the glass- the feelings are still there...Repeat.
And we've teaching our kids the same trick. Crying? Have something to eat. Bored? Watch tv. Lonely? Check your phone. Disappointed with the results? You should have worked harder. Sad? Let's go for an ice cream cone. When do we let our kids feel before trying to "fix" it.
Youth is idealised in our culture but also we say it’s wasted on the young. We put a huge amount of pressure on our kids, teenagers and students to do better than we did at the same age...while also teaching them our unhelpful emotional habits. How unfair is that?
I think we need to cut our kids, teenagers and ourselves some slack.
Some things are good things in youth: Being fit, having a range of possibilities in the future, parents footing the bill– easy, exhilarating and relaxing.
Some things aren’t: The alarming feeling of having no ideas what life is about or how it’s going to unfold– nauseating, exhilarating and terrifying.
In a culture that is obsessed with ‘Happiness’ (note the capital ‘H’), we often forget to allow ourselves to mourn or be bummed out or know that our feelings are fleeting. They come, they go. And I think we are forgetting to teach our children, teenagers and students these skills of resilience, too. For one, we rarely role model it. As parents, we think we have to be strong. As teachers, we think we have to be intellectual. So where are kids and teenagers learning about the highs and lows of being human?
A friend’s 21-year-old step-daughter called her from Australia in tears because she wasn’t feeling happy all the time and thought she’s made a mistake in following her career and moving away. She was living the dream but it didn’t feel like a dream.
My lovely, sparkly, sensible friend replied, “Oh, honey. In real life, you are not supposed to feel happy all the time.”
A simple statement but genius.
Happy all the time? Ridiculous. Why are we so uncomfortable with feeling other things? I blame TV, social media and the embedded commercial advertising. What kind of expectations are we putting on our kids and ourselves?
If we’re not happy, we can certainly spend enough money to become happy, right? Buy the clothes, the wine, the beer, the ice cream. We're buying pride, relaxation, bro buddies and a child's idea of happiness. Do we really think think we can buy positive feelings?
Beyond Happiness, there is a full spectrum of things I want my children and students to feel: satisfaction, ambition, curiosity, pride, adventure, adoration, gratitude. I want them to be moral creatures and good humans which involves feeling a range of not-so-sought-after emotions like disgust, outrage, betrayal, empathy and a little bit of fear or guilt are not a bad thing either. Everyone emotion serves a psychological purpose. What is with the happiness obsession?
So how do we build the ability to feel all the feels?
Adjust your expectations
Some days are easier than others. Fact. I remind my students of that all the time. A bad day, doesn’t mean a bad life. More poignantly, a bad hour doesn’t have to mean a bad day. We choose how long we dwell and ruminate on the negative. Someday days are easier than others makes for a great mantra. A clear minute of repetition is enough to break even the most stubborn rumination. The idea that tomorrow might be better can de-escalate teenage panic immensely (or prepubescent panic or post-menopausal panic).
Allow yourself and your kid to feel sad
If it’s a bad moment, say it. Have a cry. Acknowledge how you feel to yourself and to someone else, just for good measure. Give yourself an appropriate amount of wallowing time and then seek some antidotes in the second half of said time. For general ‘bummedness’, I think an hour for wallowing, a cry, complaining, or sulking followed by some serious intentional moodboosters
Cure for a glass half empty day? Good music, a trip to the gym, a hot shower, reading a book that doesn’t suck and a quick reminder of three things you’re grateful for. Then go get some fresh air. Note the wallowing and solving def are not quite equal parts. Spend more time of the intentional mood-boosters.
The grass is greener where you water it.
Remember nothing is forever
Thirdly, know that this too shall pass and pass that message on to your kids and students. My daughter gets angry, or has a cry and then tells me about it. I could rush around trying to solve it (though often, it has to do with something I did – like say no) or I can listen and validate her feelings and then talk about these feelings as a fleeting part of the human experience.
Sometime she just needs to be told, “You won’t feel like this forever.”
One of the most alarming things ever to come out of my stepson’s mouth was, “It’ll never be right again.”
As an educator in a country with one of the high suicide rates for teenage males in the world, I cannot express how much that phrase broke my heart. Of course things can be right again, maybe not the same, but things can feel right again and we need to remind ourselves and our young people of that too.
Like being a child or a teenager, parenting and teaching has some pretty sweet highs and some fairly tragic lows. For everyone. So enjoy the whole ride.
Celebrate the peaks, find solace in the troughs and know you won’t feel like this forever. Take it one minute at a time but keep an eye on the next.
Adrienne Buckingham has been teaching teenagers for 15 years, parenting for 8 and is on a quest to do it all better using evidence based strategies.