Don’t mess with this toddler!

Anthony, my 19 month old son, was playing with a train at the Sip and Play Café a few months back. As he was innocently pushing the train around the track, another toddler shoved him in the chest. Stumbling to regain his footing, he turned to me with a look of complete shock, then started to cry. That look– the lips all puffed out, tears streaming down his cheeks — breaks my heart every time. Immediately I scooped him up and bought him a cupcake. I placed the cupcake in front of him and all became right with the world once again.

I can see how feeling a feeling can be a scary thing for kids. They don’t know that feelings eventually end and that they’ll survive the experience. In If I’m So Smart, Why Can’t I Lose Weight?, Brooke Castillo points out that, by the time we’re adults, we’re supposed to know that feelings eventually do end; that we have the power to control them and that we can get to the bottom of what’s causing them. This, she says, is emotional adulthood.

Most of us adults still run from our feelings though. Judging from my own seemingly primal desire to stuff cupcakes down my son’s throat to keep him from crying, it’s no wonder so many people eat when confronted with emotional pain.Weight loss coaches call this “eating your emotions,”  but there are lots of other obvious ways to do it. Some people drink. Others like to shop. (I prefer to eat, shop and drink simultaneously.) What I didn’t realize until recently, though, is that there are other less obvious ways to avoid feeling feelings. By giving him a cupcake, I can see how I taught my son to eat instead of feel. What I didn’t realize is that I was also giving him a cupcake to avoid feeling sad myself. Seeing him sad makes me feel sad. And I didn’t want to feel sad.

So what’s the big deal?

According to Brooke Castillo, “each feeling will take you deeper into the knowledge of yourself if you follow it in. When you deny feeling an emotion, you deny yourself the opportunity to learn why you are feeling the feeling in the first place…” In other words, when we hide from our feelings, we remain emotional children.

Why did I buy Anthony that cupcake? What exactly is it about seeing him sad that makes me feel like running away from my own feelings? I had to sit with this question for awhile, but eventually realized that I don’t like to see him sad because I believe it is my duty as his mother to protect him. When he cries, I feel I am failing as a mother.

Paraphrasing master life coach Jackie Gartman in a recent parenting course, sometimes experiences our children have when they suffer allow them to learn things that we, as mothers, can’t teach them.

The truth is that I can never protect him from pain and suffering. I can try my best, but I will never be able to prevent every mishap. Examining my feelings (better late than never) helped me to see that, as his mother, it is not always possible to protect him from suffering nor is always helpful. And maybe the next time he has a confrontation with another toddler, I’ll teach him to feel an emotion instead of eating it.

Ironically, getting to this insight will most likely save me many years of emotional pain over the years as I mother my children. I don’t think there are enough cupcakes in the world to match that!

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