The bedroom door creaks open, reminding Ava her mom is listening.
“Sweetheart,” mom says, “what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” her ten-year-old, Ava, says through a forced smile as she walks across her room to hug her mom. “Everything is great. Can we go make pancakes?”
Ava loves her mom. For as long as Ava can remember, her mom has bent over backward to provide everything she needs. From staying up late sewing patches on her jeans to making sure every peanut butter sandwich in her lunch box is crustless and heart-shaped, Ava’s mom spends every hour of her exhausting day seeking ways to make Ava’s world brighter. Even though Ava doesn’t understand the depths of her mother’s responsibilities, she knows her mom’s ability to smile through exhaustion and mounting stress isn’t easy. Her mom deals with the loss of Ava’s dad, ever-present bills, and a day job that requires her to work until midnight.
There’s no way Ava is going to tell her mom about the bullies at school. She loves her mom too much to say something that will make her cry. Besides, her mom can’t magically change the bullies to empathetic people filled with kindness and goodwill. If her mom can’t silence the bullies, then what’s the point of opening up about her shattered self-confidence and fear of the lunchroom?
“Sure,” Ava’s mom says, still struggling with whether or not to press Ava for more details behind her tear-filled eyes and shaky response. Even though Ava’s mom has a sixth sense that tells her Ava is struggling, she doesn’t want to push. She never wants to be a parent who nags because then Ava may never open up to her.
Cue the scent of vanilla-flavored pancakes and a lesson in burying feelings.
Ava doesn’t open up, and her mom doesn’t ask any more questions. Both Ava and her mom are trying to love each other the best they know how but unfortunately, Ava now struggles with one more emotional pain alone. By trying to protect each other, they take a step further apart.
Children are smart. They learn quickly what will upset a parent and what will trigger disapproval. Additionally, most are taught from a young age the importance of empathy. It makes sense that if given the chance between knowingly causing their loved one stress or not, they pick the stress free option. In other words, children decide to put their loved one’s best interests over their own. But since they’re children, they don’t realize that their loved one’s best interest is for them to be honest and open with their feelings.
Time Magazine reports that “the number of distressed young people is on the rise.” They and others report that depression and anxiety run rampant among our youths, wreaking havoc on teens’ self-confidence, sense of worth, and overall mental health.
This is why it’s important for adults to make an intentional effort to encourage children and youth to express their emotions in a respectful, honest way. One example of how to do this is the high-low conversation, which is a phenomenal way to help your children and youth seek positives throughout their day and to share their emotions without fear of their words causing unwanted stress.
The high-low conversation asks every family member to share a high and a low from their day. This conversation can happen over the lasagna-filled dinner while carpooling between soccer practice and dance rehearsal, right before bedtime, or any place and time where a conversation can occur. When the high-low conversation is a daily occurrence, children and youth learn to look for both a high and low throughout their day because they know they’re going to be asked to provide these in the evening.
Can you imagine what your day would look like if you knew someone was asking you to report a positive every night? How many times throughout the day would you notice positive things you otherwise would’ve overlooked? On the flip side, can you imagine how you’d feel if you knew every night there was a time where you were going to be encouraged to be less than happy and perfect? Can you imagine growing up and hearing adults share their highs and lows?
If we spent our days counting our blessings and verbalized our feelings at night, how much more emotionally balanced and aware would each of us be? If we grew up in a childhood full of daily positive-seeking and nightly emotional-sharing what kind of adults would we be? Would we walk on eggshells less, unafraid to be our true unguarded selves? Would we have less stress and anxiety because verbalizing our feelings weakened their power over us and helped us relate more to others who struggle in similar ways?
At the end of the day, parents and guardians often do the best they can with their children. But if you’re reading this, then you now have one more tool in your parenting tool belt: You know the power of encouraging children and youth to speak, especially when it’s emotional, on a consistent basis.
“How are you” is the one question for which the asker doesn’t want to receive an honest answer. Unless, of course, the honest answer is “fine,” “good,” or “great.” When the question renders an “I could be better” or “it’s been a really rough day,” the asker is often caught off guard. Why is this? The answer is that we don’t expect a great deal of emotional honesty with each other. But the more people stop walking on eggshells around their own feelings, the more they increase their opportunities to relate to others and feel less alone in their struggles.
Mental and physical health have entire school days and extracurriculars devoted to them. Spiritual health has services throughout the world devoted to it. Emotional health, however, is something that parents and guardians need to help foster in their children and youth. Gone are the days of “children are seen and not heard” and in are the days of children learning to express themselves in honest, respectful ways.
Author: Evelyn Lindell
Certified Health & Wellness Coach