As a parent, there are few things worse than watching your child grapple with difficult emotions like sadness, fear and anger. We want to immediately fly into action and fix their hurts, wipe their tears away and resolve the situation as quickly as possible.
But as any parent knows, trying to be the superhero every time can be downright exhausting, not to mention futile. Try as we might to make everything perfect for our children, there are inevitably times when it seems that NOTHING we say or do can make our little ones feel better.
But here’s a very helpful analogy from the parenting blog Pick Any Two that might help to better guide you and comfort you during these difficult times.
As author, mom and wholehearted living expert Katie M. McLaughlin explains on her web site, this analogy first became clarified in her mind when her 4-year-old son suddenly discovered that his favorite stuffie was missing right before bedtime. McLaughlin knew that her son was going to be devastated about going to sleep without his stuffie, but as she ran through the options of how to “fix” the situation, she finally decided to do something amazing — nothing.
Well, not exactly nothing. Instead, she decided to use a mindfulness trick she’d learned in therapy, something called the train analogy:
‘Our Emotions Are Dark Tunnels’ That We Often Don’t To Go Through
In this analogy, our emotions are dark tunnels and we are the train chugging along the tracks. Occasionally, we (or our kids) greet a dark tunnel we really don’t want to go through. So we try to avoid the tunnel or resist going all the way through the tunnel, instead turning around halfway (doing everything we can to distract ourselves or numb the unpleasant feelings so that we don’t fully feel those emotions).
However, when we do this, our trains can’t go all the way through the tunnel. Which means our trains can’t ever get to the LIGHT at the end of the tunnel, that space of empowerment and resilience and growth that can be found only after we bravely battle through a difficult experience.
As parents, most of us are probably guilty of trying to pull our kids’ train off the track and in another direction when we see a tunnel looming. For example, when McLaughlin realized her son’s stuffie was missing and a major meltdown was moments away, she could have done any number of things to try and keep his train from fully going into that tunnel. She could have placated him (“I will drive to Grandma’s house and get the stuffie as fast as I can!”), she could have bribed him (“You can have ice cream instead”) or she could have even diminished his pain (“Don’t be silly; it’s just one night without your stuffie”).
Instead, she decided to sit down on the bed and quietly allow her son to feel all his feelings, even the ones that hurt her to watch. Because, let’s be honest, as parents, part of the reason we’re always trying to “fix” our kids’ problems is because we hate to see them in pain.
But McLaughlin decided to trust the train analogy and, as her son went through that dark tunnel of anger and sadness and fear, she sat there and bore witness to his pain without minimizing it or distracting him in any way.
The Light At The End Of The Tunnel
After several minutes of crying, he calmed down on his own. He climbed out of bed and found a book, and came up with a solution to make himself feel better all on his own (he would sleep with two other stuffed animals and read a couple of extra books to make the bedtime experience more enjoyable).
How amazing is that? Not only did he go through the experience and find his own solution and coping mechanisms, but he also realized he was strong enough and resilient enough to endure disappointment. He realized he would be OK, even if he had a bad day or something went wrong. And that’s an invaluable life lesson for every kid to learn.
So the next time your little one is starting to feel upset, don’t rush them through the process or immediately go into Miss Fix-It mode. Instead, visualize your child as a train chugging through a dark tunnel, and let them get all the way through so they can find their own light at the end.