In an often quoted scene from the movie “Moonstruck,” the character played by Cher in response to the Nicholas Cage character’s declaration of love for her, slaps him and says, “Get over it!” Having just had a sexual encounter together of which she herself disapproves, she wants to be sure it won’t be repeated. The implication seems to be that in order to stop the behavior he has to get over his feelings.
I thought of this when a mother spoke to me about her four year old son who was refusing to go to school because he was angry at a friend in his class. The boy refused to let him join a game he was playing with another child and now her son doesn’t want to have to see him, speak to him, or play with him. The mother told him she was sorry this happened but that he had to get over it because the boy was in his class and he had to go to school.
Parents often express concern about their children’s strong emotional reactions which often are expressed in unacceptable behavior. For example, children who won’t enter some activities because of lack of confidence, or who won’t go to birthday parties because of anxiety, or are fearful in a variety of situation. Parents want to help their children overcome the feelings that seem to be getting in their way.
Besides, children’s emotions often seem to get in their parents’ way. Most often they express their emotions in behavior and since the emotions are strong, so is the behavior. When upset, young children may have tantrums, cry or act out in other ways. Intense feelings are expressed in intense ways. Often, the behavior seems out of proportion to the seeming provocation. Children see things in black and white terms so when something feels bad it is totally black – and so is the reaction.
For these reasons and others, parents may see both the behavior and the feelings as problems that will, or do stand in their children’s way of successful interactions with others in their world. Since the undesired behavior appears to be caused by underlying feelings, the goal tends to become that of helping children get over the feelings. The confusion lies in the idea that in order to change the behavior one has to change the feelings.
I have been thinking about this since hearing a rabbi tell a story about a leader who put himself in physical danger in pursuit of a cause important to him. Asked if he was not afraid, the leader replied that of course he was afraid, but not living up to his values was a greater threat to his well being than the physical danger he was in. To accomplish his goal, he lived with his fear.
Hopefully, our children do not face such life and death choices in the situations they confront in their lives. But the point is that it is possible to have our fears and still behave in a way that will enable us to achieve our goals. This applies to other emotions as well, such as anger, frustration, resentment or feelings of rejection which may seem to be life and death situations to children. The challenge lies not in getting rid of the feelings but in learning to act on them in appropriate ways.
Feelings are not the problem. It is acting on feelings in self-defeating ways that is the problem. Validating the feelings of others is what can help the most. The boy who was refusing to go to school because of his anger and hurt feelings was making a big statement to show how strongly he felt. The attempt to talk him out of it made him feel it necessary to defend his feelings even more strongly. If given permission to have those feelings, having the support of his mother, could enable him to let go enough to think about other more successful ways to express his hurt feelings to his friend.
The emotional support of a parent – or friend – that comes from feeling understood means one is not alone, the sole defender of painful feelings. With such support it becomes possible to have the feeling and still act constructively.