At home, we have a lot of animals, including two aging cats, a kelpie puppy, and an assortment of farm animals, but it’s the cats that are our daughter’s favorite. Her bedroom is decorated like a shrine for all things ‘cat’, with cat-themed wallpaper, curtains, bedding, and an ever-growing ornament collection.
Even when we travelled overseas in 2016, our daughter managed to find every cat within a one mile radius, or so it seemed anyway. When people ask what the best part of our holiday was, she tells them it was playing with the barn kittens at her friend’s riding school … even better than Disneyland and Universal Studios, apparently!
So, last week I booked our daughter into a ‘Reading Buddies’ school holiday program at an animal shelter, where kids spend a couple of hours patting and reading to animals waiting for adoption – our daughter was beyond excited, and didn’t even complain during the full hour it took to travel there.
The thing is, although I knew our daughter would have an amazing time at this program, it didn’t occur to me we might actually have trouble leaving. I’m not sure why it didn’t cross my mind, especially given the tears earlier in the week when we left a local ‘cat cafe’ …
Anyway, long story short, after the program finished, our daughter insisted upon showing me the cats and kittens waiting for adoption, and that’s when we saw ‘Jaffa’, an adorable playful ball of ginger fluff that our daughter hadn’t noticed earlier on.
Within five minutes, our daughter moved through the feelings of surprise, delight, love, desperation, and sadness. She sat in the small cement and wire room, holding Jaffa to her chest, with her big blue eyes streaming with tears. She rang her Dad and begged him to let us take Jaffa home, offered to pay for the kitten herself, and promised to be fully responsible for its care. It was heartbreaking to watch — in that moment, I knew our daughter meant every word she said, but her Dad remained firm, and we left without the kitten.
We walked to the car, and although my comforting hug was refused, I didn’t take offence. Instead, I told her I understood why she’d fallen in love with little Jaffa, and that it was okay to feel sad and disappointed about leaving her behind.
Our drive home was long and heartbreaking, punctuated with sobs and cries for us to change our minds. It was so hard not to turn around and just get that darn kitten, but the reasons we’d said no were just as valid as they were before – we already have 17 animals!
I’d love to say that by the time we arrived home our daughter had settled, but it wasn’t the case. The rollercoaster that is our daughter’s emotions was well and truly still going. So after another hour of empathy and understanding, I decided to ‘have words’ with our daughter.
I put my arm around her shoulders, and got down to her level. I told her that although it’s okay to be so sad and disappointed, and that her ‘big feelings’ are actually something we really love about her, it was time to use some of her ‘strategies’.
She was initially reluctant – I think because this meant she really wasn’t going to be adopting little Jaffa – but after some encouragement we practiced our ‘calm breathing’ and ‘bubble breaths’, we did some stretching, and I gave our daughter a back scratch and massage.
The breathing, stretching and back scratching helped to reduce some of our daughter’s upsetness, but for children with such big feelings, it can take a while for the full intensity of their feelings to really settle. Our daughter’s emotions are like waves in the ocean, coming and going, and eventually subsiding, but it takes time.
In fact, it took the rest of the day for our daughter to properly calm down, but by bedtime she was almost back to her usual self, with just a few quiet comments about still wanting the kitten . And like many overwhelming experiences, the ‘Jaffa situation’ was a lot better after a goodnight’s sleep. Today, we’ve only had two requests to bring Jaffa home, and we were able to talk about it each time without tears, which is definitely progress.
I imagine that as the days go by it will continue to become easier for our daughter, and that the sadness she feels about the kitten will be replaced by other equally intense feelings about something else, and that’s okay.
It can be tough ‘in the moment’ (for our both our daughter and us) but we wouldn’t wish for her to be any other way. She is the most loving, kind, and caring child, and shows empathy and understanding toward others well beyond her years, it’s just that the flip side is that she also feels sadness, disappointment, and anger more intensely than many of her peers.
So, how is it ‘good’ for our daughter to feel so sad? Here’s a summary:
- Experiencing sadness in its all its glory is part of leading a full life
- Properly feeling sad helps our daughter better appreciate times when she feels pleased, happy, and cheerful
- Feeling her sadness fully better allows our daughter to work through it and let it go, rather than have it revisit again and again
- Supporting our daughter to experience her sadness, rather than minimising or dismissing it, gives her the message that we ‘accept’ her as she is
- Choosing to support our daughter with empathy and understanding, but also suggesting strategies, and gently setting limits, allows us to make use of such situations as teaching opportunities, and
- As our daughter becomes older, we’re confident she’ll become more independent in managing her feelings successfully — because she will have been supported to do so many times while growing up.
This style of parenting, that prioritizes the parent-child relationship, accepts emotions as a valid part of life, views behavior as a form of communication, and considers ‘tricky times’ as teaching opportunities isn’t always easy, but we’re pretty sure it’s worth it.