They sat around the dining room table, playing Candyland--the mother, the grandmother, the 4 ½ year old boy and his 2 ½ year old sister. There was laughter and enthusiasm and good will. Then the little sister had had enough of being sedentary and attentive. She scooped up all the pieces, shoveled them over to herself and yelled, “All mine.” There was a quiet moment, and, then, the little boy stamped his hand on the table and said, “I hate her.” Without pause, the Mom said in an indignant fashion, “You don’t hate her, you love her. She’s your sister.”
What had just happened? In an age appropriate fashion, the little sister spoiled the game. In an age appropriate fashion, the little brother was angry and disappointed. Here was an opportunity for the adults to show empathy, understanding, caring and to teach the children something important about relationships. Had the mother said, “Johnny, you’re very angry that Mary spoiled the game and right now you feel like you hate her. We feel all kinds of feelings for people in the family--sometimes we love them; sometimes we hate them; sometimes we’re angry with them; sometimes we want to hug them and help them…” What would the children have learned? That people have all kinds of feelings for each other and are allowed to feel them without guilt or shame.
Instead the mother’s remark was a message that: 1) He didn’t really know what he was feeling. That confuses people and they grow up not trusting what they feel and feeling phony and not authentic. 2) That he has “bad” feelings and is therefore, a “bad” person and needs to feel guilty and ashamed. 3) This begins the strand of feeling one is “bad” and “wrong” and leads to self-punishing actions…A chain of harm has begun.
Empathizing with feelings, validating feelings of every variety and explaining feelings is a necessary component in helping a child towards a healthy self-esteem.