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What To Do When Your Spouse Lacks Empathy

Your spouse can develop empathy. Here's how to help.

You want your spouse to be fully present with you in your feelings, thoughts and situations in life. But what happens when they don’t show empathy? You probably feel alone, unimportant and misunderstood. You’ve opened up, but your spouse seems unable or uninterested in responding in an empathetic way. So, what do you do when your spouse lacks empathy? 

First, my heart goes out to anyone married to a spouse who indeed lacks empathy. This is a hard road.

Let’s begin by establishing what we mean by the word empathy. According to Harvard psychologist Susan David, “Learning to label emotions with a more nuanced vocabulary can be absolutely transformative.” 

The term empathy has evolved and has recently exploded in popularity.

That’s great, but it can be confusing if it’s not clearly defined. In Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, researcher Brené Brown describes two types of empathy:

  1. Cognitive Empathy is sometimes called perspective-taking or mentalizing. It’s the ability to recognize and understand another’s emotions. “Your best friend told a bunch of people something you confided in them! It’s completely understandable to feel betrayed. I get you.
  1. Affective Empathy is often called experience-sharing. It is one person’s emotional attunement with another’s experience. “Your best friend told a bunch of people something you confided in them! I feel that sting of betrayal. I feel you.

Your spouse is the one person you hope will get you and feel you. Why? So they can be there for you. (In whatever way you need them to be.)

Simple phrases like, I get you, I feel you, and I’m here for you, are gestures toward empathy. When they’re sincere, they mean I. Am. With. You. You are not alone. But empathy doesn’t stop there. Empathy isn’t complete without action. 

Empathy should lead your spouse to put self aside, be present in your story and absorb it. They understand, believe and validate it and you… they don’t judge, criticize or dismiss it and you. (And they definitely don’t make it about them.) Empathy is the catalyst to respond with appropriate, compassionate actions.

How to Respond vs. React

Telling your spouse they’re not empathetic is probably not gonna help. It’s more of a label when you actually need their labor. You need them to do the relationship work to get outside of themself and be considerate of you. 

You may be able to help your spouse who lacks empathy by fine-tuning your communication. Be clear and direct about what you need. Invite them into your story. Frame the conversation by saying things like, “At the moment, I’m not looking for you to judge me, give me advice, or share your opinion. I need to feel heard and understood.”

Pause. Reframe. Rephrase. “I need you to be present with me.”

Begin your statements (like the ones below) with “I need you to…”

  • Understand how I feel and care about my feelings.
  • Listen to what I’m thinking and consider my thoughts.
  • Hear me and care. I need to know I have your full attention.
  • Support me and be my partner in this situation.
  • Understand this part of me I’m trying to share with you.
  • Understand how important this is to me.

Empathetic conversations can lead to tangible, actionable things for a caring spouse. You can set measurable goals around these statements. Often, we can address a lack of empathy with better communication. There is help and hope to improve communication so you feel heard and understood

But what if this doesn’t snap my spouse out of themself and into being present with me?

Why isn’t your spouse empathetic even when you ask them to try to empathize with you? There can be a variety of reasons. We don’t fully understand why some people are more empathetic than others or why some people have little to no empathy. But there are indications that a person can learn to be more empathetic. 

Here are a few things you can do:

1. Model empathy for your spouse.

Make empathetic statements “out loud” and do empathy work “out in the open” where your spouse can see it. For example:

  • Help me understand how it felt to get that raise at work… 
  • Sarah, how did it feel when Hunter wouldn’t share his toys? 
  • Imagine what it must be like to lose everything as those people on the news did.
  • Amanda, I’m not going to offer unsolicited advice. I just want to sit with you as you go through this difficult time. You tell me what you need.

2. Practice talking about emotions with your spouse.

Try books, games, apps, and websites with “get to know you” questions and conversation starters. This can be a helpful practice for discussing your interior lives. Make it a “Judgment-Free Zone” and a safe sharing space.

3. When your spouse does express empathy, acknowledge it and thank them for it.

Hard Relationships. Hard Choices.

Living with a spouse who isn’t empathetic can be draining and demanding. Because your spouse lacks empathy, they might be critical, cruel, or unforgiving. They may react with anger when they feel like you are being “too sensitive.” They could be oblivious to how their behavior affects you, or be unresponsive to your needs. 

Unfortunately, this might be your reality. It’s one thing to be patient with the change process and support growth in your spouse. It’s quite another to be hurting all the time and in over your head. 

Here are things to consider: 

1. It’s not your job to “fix” your spouse.

Several factors can contribute to someone’s inability to empathize. Genetics. Socialization. Childhood trauma. Your spouse may have grown up in a family that suppressed emotions. You can support and encourage your spouse if they’re trying to grow in this area. But this may be an issue they need to work through. You also need to recognize if they’re not trying to grow in this area.

2. Seek professional help.

Diagnosable disorders may play a significant part in why your spouse lacks empathy (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, or Borderline Personality Disorder, etc.). Know when to bring in the professionals. But remember: Your spouse may not change. 

And if abuse is going on, it may not be a safe relationship for you to stay in. Your safety and mental health are important. 

**Constant criticism, mocking, and devaluing your thoughts and feelings are forms of emotional abuse, and if your spouse is completely unwilling to get help to change their behavior, that’s not ok. Understand what abuse is in all of its forms. [See below for The Domestic Violence Hotline number.]

3. Find validation from within and from other supportive people in your life.

It can take quite a bit of time for your spouse to hone their empathy skills. It’s a process that will have ups and downs. You can’t allow your self-worth to be tied up in their ability to empathize with you; it should come from within. Practice self-acceptance and self-care, and in the meantime, turn to trusted friends you can share your thoughts and feelings with. And there’s no shame in seeking a counselor for yourself, either.

Life is certainly not easy with a spouse who lacks empathy. You can do several things to improve the situation. But you also need to recognize when those things aren’t working. Many people have successfully maintained their marriage knowing that their spouse may have many positive traits, but being empathetic is not one of them. You can set boundaries with your spouse and still get your need for empathy met in other healthy ways.

At the end of the day, we all want to be heard and understood without judgment. And chances are, you both want your marriage to be a safe space to share your thoughts and feelings. Fine-tune your communication around what empathy looks like in your relationship. Practice talking about feelings. Dig deeper into understanding and believing in each other. Recognize and appreciate any progress toward more empathy – it’s a process that will bring you closer together in the end.

Sources:

*Special thanks to my colleague, Tamara Slocum, for her insights/contributions to this piece.

Susan David, Ph.D.

Brené Brown

Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience

8 Steps to Better Communication Today

Empathy Definition | What Is Empathy

The Origin of Empathy

The Surprising History of Empathy | Psychology Today

The Secret to a Happy Relationship Is Empathy | Psychology Today

What to Do If You or a Loved One Lack Empathy

Resources:

Why Should I Consider Counseling? – First Things First

How to Find a Counselor Who Will Fight for Your Marriage – First Things First

How to Crack the Code of Men’s Feelings | Psychology Today

Keys to Effective Communication in Marriage – First Things First

Why Some People Have a Lack of Empathy (And How to Deal with Them) – Lifehack

200 Questions For Couples

**Domestic Violence Hotline

Do you feel safe? For a free, confidential, and clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here, or contact the Domestic Violence Hotline, 24/7, at 1−800−799−7233.

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6 Things You Can Do to Help a Child Who Is Grieving the Death of a Parent

Adults in the child's life are essential to help them grieve in a healthy way.

Death is often a difficult topic to discuss. It’s even more challenging to consider how you can help a child through the death of a parent. No matter what age, the death of a parent shifts your foundation. Therefore, it’s even more critical to find ways to support and help a child grieving the death of a parent. 

Parents provide safety and security for their children. After a parent dies, the child’s needs may vary according to their age, maturity, and personality. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to grief. These children have unique needs that should be met. 

Here are 6 things you can do to help a child who is grieving the death of a parent:

1. Be aware of your own grief and emotions.

It’s not easy to help a child through grief if you don’t acknowledge and work through your own. Grief is the process through which you deal with a loss. In this case, a friend or loved one died and left a child or children behind. Recognizing this allows you to process your grief so you don’t unintentionally make this loss only about you. 

2. Be careful how you communicate with the child.

Because people tend to be uncomfortable talking about death, they often use well-intentioned phrases that do more harm than good. Sayings like:

 “They are in a better place.”

“They just went to sleep.”

“One day, you will get over this.”

While you may mean well, think carefully about saying something just to say something. You may even need to listen more than you talk.

3. Be prepared for the child to express a variety of behaviors.

Children can display so many emotions after their parent dies, including fear, sadness, or anger. They may experience separation anxiety when away from the surviving parent or caregivers. Additionally, they may experience the following regressive behaviors, including using baby talk, bedwetting, or waking in the middle of the night. Stomachaches may become common complaints. Eating habits may change also. It’s essential to be aware of the frequency and intensity of any behavioral changes. 

4. Be age-appropriately honest with them.

Children often have questions after the death of a parent. How did it happen? Is it gonna happen to you? Is it gonna happen to them? First, talk with their surviving parent to find out what they shared with the child. That can prepare you to answer questions within the framework they’ve established. Honesty is vital. Your honest answers help rebuild trust and security. In your desire to help, consistency and reliability are essential, too. You want to under-promise and over-deliver rather than over-promise and underdeliver. Do everything you can to follow through with what you say you will do.

5. Be award that grief is an ongoing process.

Many people come around in the immediate aftermath. However, the kids will need you for the long haul. The hard truth is that a child never gets over the death of a parent or stops grieving their loss, though the experience of grief may morph over time. Kids may seem to bounce back from the loss. As a result, we want to believe that children are resilient and won’t be affected long-term. As comforting as this might sound, unfortunately, it’s not true. The intensity may lessen over time, but the parent they lost won’t be there for life milestones (i.e., Birthdays, Holidays, Proms, Graduations, Weddings).  

6. Be proactive in helping the child find ways to remember their parent.

Some people think that remembering a parent who died causes children pain. Attempting to minimize the pain, people often decide to remove photos or rarely mention or discuss the parent. On the contrary, remembering helps with the grieving process. Memories give a child a picture of who their parent was, what they liked, and how they lived. 

Losing a parent can be one of the most challenging things a child (or even an adult) can experience. The adults in the child’s life are essential to help them grieve in a healthy way. As you journey with them, be a listening ear, a safe place to land, and a consistent presence in their lives.

Other helpful resources:

What To Do When Your Marriage Lacks Emotional Safety

Build trust, resilience, and deep commitment.

Married, yet hiding from your spouse. Such is life when you don’t feel emotional safety in your marriage. There are parts of you, your personality, dreams, feelings, or thoughts, locked inside, unavailable to your spouse. Exposing them puts you at risk for rejection, criticism, or neglect. You don’t wanna live like this anymore. You want the freedom to be your whole self – vulnerable, imperfect, flawed, and all.

So what do you do?

Emotional Safety in Marriage: Take A Look At Yourself

When it comes to emotional safety, there are two people to look at: you and your spouse. Let’s start with the easy person to look at first – you. (I know, it’s easier to look at your spouse, but you know you. You’ve been with you all your life.)

Sometimes we have our own personal barriers to being emotionally safe with others, even in marriage.

  • Traumatic event(s) in our past
  • Personal insecurities
  • The false belief that you and your spouse should always agree
  • Personal control issues
  • Past relationship experiences

Without understanding how your past experiences and current mindset may affect your ability to be totally open with someone, these barriers can hold you captive. They can cause you to go into “self-protective mode” anytime you feel challenged or feel vulnerable.

  1. Ask yourself what you may be fearful of.
  2. Talk to a friend or possibly a professional counselor.
  3. Ask your spouse for help. 
  4. Be honest with yourself and forgive yourself.
  5. Speak the truth about you to yourself. Your past doesn’t have to determine your future or define you.

Processing what holds you back from feeling emotional safety can strip the past and any insecurities or control issues of their power to sabotage your relationship.

Emotional Safety In Marriage: Take A Look At Your Spouse

Now let’s look at the second person in this equation – your spouse. When they make you feel a lack of emotional safety for you, what do you do? 

1. Name what makes you feel a lack of emotional safety.

Be aware of what you feel makes it unsafe. Do you feel talked down to, dismissed, inferior, etc.? It might be worth writing your feelings down before you talk.

2. Create an opportunity to talk.

Set aside a non-threatening time to discuss emotional safety with your spouse. Without attacking or accusing (because you want to be an emotionally safe person, too), ask…

  • “What does emotional safety in our marriage mean to you?” Obviously, this may not be something your spouse has thought much about. Still, it’s a worthwhile conversation to have. A good follow up question is, 
  • “What causes you to feel emotionally unsafe?” After your spouse shares, share your answers to those questions and go from there.

3. Agree on what emotional safety is.

Work toward agreeing about what emotional safety is and why it’s a good thing. (Read 4 Things to Know About Emotional Safety to learn more.) Discuss questions like,

  • “What makes you feel safest, most free to be yourself, and willing to be totally transparent or vulnerable?”
  • “What makes you shut down and go into protection mode?

Listening to each other can help you both understand how to create a safe environment. 

Affirm what you like about each other. Remind yourselves why you wanted to marry each other. Take turns sharing the strengths each brings to the marriage. Knowing that your spouse likes you for you increases emotional safety. 

Model

You’ve probably heard the golden rule: “Do to others as you’d have them do to you.” It’s also true in marriage. Sometimes others are emotionally unsafe because they need to self-protect. Listen to your spouse. Foster an environment where they can be vulnerable and their full selves. 

Revisit

This is not an issue you’ll address only once. (If so, consider yourself one of the lucky ones.) Come up with code words to communicate when your spouse is doing something to make you feel unsafe. Freely acknowledge if you’re struggling because of your own issues. (Full disclosure: I do this with my wife. Sometimes I can go into conflict-prevention, self-protection mode, where I don’t share my full thoughts and beliefs because I know my spouse will disagree. That’s a “me” issue, not a spouse issue. Acknowledging it helps me name it and work through it.)

Not every spouse will embrace talking about being emotionally safe. At times, contacting a marriage counselor is the best route. If and when you talk about it, be prepared for the rewards of working through marriage challenges; it will build trust, resiliency, and deep commitment. Who doesn’t want that for their marriage?

Other helpful resources:

4 Ways to Help Your Child Deal With Anger

You can help them express themselves in healthy ways.

Eight years ago, my wife and I embarked on a journey. A journey with no map, no guidebook, and filled with mystery and surprise. A journey of blazing our own trails. You may know this journey… it’s called parenting. 

Now, here we are with two curious, fun-loving adventurers, one 8 and one 5. Both of them are full of life and laughter and a full range of emotions. This stage of parenting brings a new element: navigating those emotions. The dirty diapers and potty training are gone; we live in a world of attitudes. Any other elementary-age parents out there feel me? I wasn’t ready for this.

One of the more challenging emotions to address has been anger. How do I help my child navigate being angry? How do I help them express their anger? Do I want them to be angry?

Before I go further, let me say this slowly and clearly: Anger is normal. There is nothing wrong with being angry. It’s what we do with anger that matters. Anger often reveals our passions and sense of justice. We just can’t let it control us. [Read Why Anger Isn’t Good or Bad for more on this]

Now that we’ve got that clear, here are four ways you can help your child deal with anger:

Teach them about their feelings.

Our kids are constantly learning. From day one, they are discovering a new world with new sights and sounds. Feelings and emotions are no different. They learn happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and joy. Our job as parents is to help them learn these emotions and name them. They may not know how to express what they feel, but we can give them the words.

When they’re mad or upset, help them investigate why they feel that way. As you both discover the expressions of their emotions, name them. Give them words like sad, mad, happy, disappointed, maybe even hangry (my kids get angry).

Model how to handle anger in a healthy way.

Kids are sponges. They watch and listen. You may have heard it said, “More is caught than taught.” That’s parenting gold right there. Researchers have found that much of what we learn comes through social interactions. This is called the social learning theory.

What it means is, how you handle anger directly influences how your child handles it.

If someone cuts me off in traffic, I get mad. Just being real. I often don’t want to say nice things about said person. (Confession is good for the soul; glad I got that out there.) I’m conscious of this in myself, so when it happens and my kids see me mad, I tell them that I’m frustrated and why. And I own my actions or feelings.

It’s healthy for us to express what makes us angry so our kids can learn how to handle the same emotions. Now, we don’t have to express all of our frustrations to them. There are plenty of adult problems that our kids need to be protected from. But we can define some of our frustrations, how they make us feel, and why.

They are watching and listening anyway, so take the opportunity to teach.

Help them communicate their feelings.

When we help our child name their emotions, we are helping them communicate what is going on inside. If my kids are angry, I don’t want them to throw a tantrum or become overly upset because things didn’t go their way. I want them to be able to express what they’re feeling and act appropriately. This goes back to modeling. Remember, they’re watching.

Make a plan to handle anger.

Anger is normal, but what we do with anger matters. If you want to help your child manage their anger, it might be a good idea to make a plan before they get angry. Trying to make a plan while they’re dealing with the emotion won’t work. Here are some thoughts on what could be part of your plan:

  • Engage in a calming activity (coloring, reading, taking a walk).
  • Take a “time in.” When they feel frustrated, take a few minutes to calm down. Reflect on what they think or feel and calm down before speaking or doing something. Remember, this isn’t a punishment. 
  • Take deep breaths or count to 10.

Once they have calmed down, talk through the situation and their responses. Acknowledge and applaud them for handling the situation. It’s important to recognize what goes well. A wise man once told me, “What gets recognized gets repeated.” 

It’s healthy for children (and adults) to express and feel their emotions. It’s our job to teach them to do this in a healthy way.

If you feel your child’s anger is increasing despite your best efforts, consult their pediatrician. We want to do everything in our power to help our children be successful and develop into extraordinary adults.

Other helpful blogs:

4 Things to Know About Emotional Safety

Create the connection you crave in your closest relationships.

What is emotional safety?

Emotional safety. Does that sound like a lofty concept? Let’s break it down. Emotional is defined as relating to one’s feelings. Safety means keeping yourself or others free from harm. So, put them together, and what does emotional safety mean? When you’re emotionally safe, you’ve removed yourself as a barrier to others freely being themselves. Recent neurobiology research by Dr. Stephen Porges reveals that emotional safety is one of the most important aspects of connection in a relationship.

Here are some things to know about emotional safety.

Emotional safety comes from within. It starts with you. It consists of identifying your feelings and being able to feel them. 

Emotional safety means revealing your true self to another person. It is expressing who you are, including your hurts, fears, and dreams. It’s expressing yourself authentically, sharing dissatisfaction, fears, and insecurities, and having a conversation without it blowing up into an argument. It’s sharing without fear of shaming, yelling, or rejection.

We all need at least one person with whom we can be ourselves.

Ideally, marriage is a safe space for you and your spouse to reveal your true selves. Parenthood allows you to create a safe environment for your children to grow and learn who they are as individuals. And friendship is a space where you can be the most real you.

Why does emotional safety matter?

Emotional safety is essential in any relationship, whether romantic, family, friends, or co-workers.

When we trust that someone else can see, hear, and understand us, we relax more with them. We open up about who we are and feel connected. Emotional safety is reciprocal. When we are safe for someone else, we deepen our relationship.

When you feel emotionally safe, you are more likely to be your best self and contribute to your greatest ability. You are free to dream, collaborate, create, share, and express yourself. When we open up and do this in a safe environment, we invite others to do the same. 

In relationships, we need to feel safe before we can be vulnerable. Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.” Safety creates a foundation for intimacy and closeness.

How do you build & keep emotional safety?

Now, we have a good idea of what emotional safety is. We can examine our relationships and see where it exists. But, how do we build it if it doesn’t exist? 

The foundation is trust. We can’t feel safe with someone if we don’t trust them. Building emotional safety requires building and keeping trust. Trust is a two-way street. It’s built with honesty, credibility, communication, and authenticity.

Another important piece of emotional safety is recognizing what not to do in relationships. We may not be aware of the subtle ways we cause harm with sarcasm, blaming, or shaming others. Instead, traits like respect, kindness, and appreciation foster safety.

Here are some actions you can take to maintain emotional safety:

  • Be consistent. Be there for your spouse, child, friend, or co-worker. When you are consistently present, others see you as reliable and trustworthy.
  • Listen actively. Listen to learn, not to respond. I often struggle with this. We have to slow down and listen.
  • Be curious, not judgmental. Be interested in what the other person is interested in. Ask questions. 
  • Lead with empathy and compassion. Feel what they feel and genuinely care about who they are and what they believe.

What happens if emotional safety isn’t there?

A lack of emotional safety leads to disconnection. Disconnection is a massive threat to a relationship. When we feel disconnected, we begin to feel lonely and distant, and the relationship can start to crumble.

If you feel disconnected from someone, try to find out what’s going on. It could be you. It could be them. If you can, talk about it and make a plan to rebuild your connection.  

Take steps today to create emotional safety in at least one of your relationships. Start by seeing if you’re in tune with your own emotions. If you are, make sure you’re maintaining it well. We all need emotional safety in our relationships.

Other helpful blogs:

How to Be an Emotionally Safe Parent

Here are two things your child needs from you.

I was 5 and mad at my mom. I forget why. But I do remember I was packing my bags and hitting the road. In a rockstar parenting move, my unshakable mother began packing sandwiches for me to take on my run-away trip. 

“Whhattt?” you may scream. “How could she?? That’s so… mean… insensitive… emotionally unsafe!”

Emotionally Safe. What does that even mean, anyway?

For some, it means parenting so that their kids never think badly of them and try to run away. (Spoiler alert: That’s impossible.

For others, it means they try to never be angry — even when their kid draws dinosaurs on the white couch with permanent markers. (Honestly, if you have children — why have white furniture??) 

So let me offer you a working definition: 

Emotional safety means parenting in a way that your child feels safe enough to be themselves. 

That’s it. It’s not rocket science. Kids who are safe to be themselves may be, well, quirky. They’re encouraged to explore who they are, to formulate their world. They dress themselves (sometimes weirdly). They use their imagination (again, often weird). They’re on the road to discovering their personality, likes and dislikes, sense of humor, fashion, and overall mojo.

Now, emotional safety doesn’t mean parents don’t set boundaries for their child. And it doesn’t mean kids may not experience sadness, or disappointment, or anxiety. And it certainly doesn’t mean you’ll never be angry or hurt by them, or not pack sandwiches when they want to run away. That’s just real life. 

So how can you go about helping your kids feel emotionally safe? 

Research can give us a little insight into this. (Hang with me here — I promise it won’t be a term paper.) 

Psychologist Don Catherall says a person (like your child) needs two things to feel emotionally safe with someone (like you, the parent): 

One: To feel a healthy sense of connection to the person. 

And two: To develop a healthy sense of security in themselves. 

In other words, your child needs to feel close to you and (at least to be developing the skills) to feel good about themselves

This means developing an appropriately close relationship with your child while giving them opportunities to build self-confidence. Ironically, building self-confidence often involves doing things without you. Notice the balance? 

Here’s another way to look at it: 

Some researchers say the healthiest families strike a balance with a couple of tensions: 

1. Constant over-attachment versus total disconnection.

The need to feel overly-involved in every single aspect of their child’s life can quickly become what researchers call “enmeshment.” Parents can’t separate their child’s emotions from their own. Boundaries are unclear. It’s a false sense of emotional safety which, in reality, focuses on the parent’s unhealthy need to be connected or overprotective. Disconnection is the polar opposite, of course. Neither extreme fosters real emotional safety. 

2. A rigid, overly-structured family environment versus one that is absolutely chaotic without rules or boundaries. 

Too many parents buckle under the need for their kids to like them. As a result, they compromise rules and structure in an attempt to offer emotional safety. On the flip side, others go overboard with stringent rules, consequences, and schedules. Unfortunately, either extreme tends to have the opposite outcome. 

The main point: Emotionally safe kids thrive when there’s a balance. 

Want to be an emotionally safe parent? 

Be the parent, not the friend. Stay connected, but don’t smother. Build confidence in your child. Challenge them to go beyond what they think they’re able to do. Set boundaries. Own your emotions and let them experience theirs

Fortunately, my 5-year-old self didn’t make it past the mailbox with my bologna sandwiches. And my mom never faltered with her parenting techniques, even if I wasn’t happy about it. She was savvy enough to understand that it was okay for me to be upset. She didn’t need to overreact, and I would eventually make my way back, knowing a little more about my weird self, emotionally safe and all. 

Other helpful blogs:

My Child Is Unhappy. What Am I Doing Wrong?

Create an environment that decreases moments of unhappiness with these five tips.

Your child is giving you that look. The one that makes you feel like you should’ve done better even when you did the best you could. You know they’re unhappy and you feel like you’ve tried everything to cheer them up and nothing’s working. As a parent, we’ve all been there, and the truth is, the moment passes… most of the time.

When my children were younger, we would go to a small family amusement park near our home. We’d invite friends and family to go as a group usually on a warm summer Saturday afternoon. Inevitably the normal summer afternoon rain shower would start just as we were headed for our outing. Because those afternoon thunderstorms were accompanied by lightning, we’d have to postpone or even cancel our plans. I knew my son would be in a mood for days if we actually had to cancel. I’m talking full-on sad, pouting, and disappointed look on his face. I’d try to cheer him up by saying we can go next weekend or by taking him to another fun place for kids. But his mind was set; it was like I couldn’t offer up anything as good despite all of my best efforts, I still had an unhappy son.

Things have changed in ways we never expected this year. COVID-19 has taken away our access to normal activities. Your child may have missed spring sports, annual family trips, or even dealt with the death of a loved one. You get to teach your child how to process and move through a variety of emotions including moments of disappointment and being unhappy. As a parent, you can do everything in your power or even give your child their biggest wish, and they can still be UNHAPPY. 

Your child actually gets to choose whether they are happy or not. Hal Runkel, LMFT, often says, “You are responsible to your kids, not for them.” In most instances, you, the parent, are not at fault nor did you cause your child’s moment of unhappiness. You do have the opportunity to help them see the positive and be happy even in difficult situations.

Here are ways you can create an environment that decreases moments of unhappiness.

  • Know Your Child Is Watching You.

As parents, we model for our children many different things including how we deal with emotions. Your child is very perceptive and in watching you may recognize and mimic your emotions. If you’re dealing with stresses that impact your emotions, your child may also demonstrate the same reactions. It’s good that your child sees you have a variety of emotional responses. Also, be aware if you try to put on a “happy face,” your child will often see through that. They learn being sad or unhappy or angry is normal and how you can get through it.

  • It’s Normal For Kids To Be Unhappy When You Set Limits.

Many parents want their children to always be happy. That’s a lot of pressure to place on yourself. Primarily, it’s your job as a parent to provide consistency, structure, rituals, and routines for your child. As a result, your child may display unhappiness when you set and stick to limits such as bedtime, eating vegetables before dessert, tech device access, or saying NO to what they want. It’s also important to recognize that children often “want what they want” and can use their emotions to manipulate getting their way. Don’t fall for it.

  • Allow Children To Express Genuine Emotions.

If a family member is sick or a family pet has died, it’s good that your child can express their emotions of sadness and unhappiness to you. Allow them to genuinely and authentically share with you what they are feeling. This strengthens your connection. Children feel supported and secure when parents can hear and handle their emotions. 

Your child’s personality may be more optimistic or pessimistic. No matter the case, it’s important to teach your child they are responsible for how they respond or react to any given emotion. In addition, skills such as gratitude and even thinking happy thoughts are ways to build their emotional skills.

  • Playtime Can Make It Better.

Play, whether it is structured or unstructured, promotes intellectual, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Children learn how to work with others, handle conflict, and regulate their emotions while playing. Getting outside to play not only encourages bonding with your child, but it also releases endorphins which naturally improve your mood.

In some instances, there are very good reasons why your child is unhappy. A divorce, death, move to a different city, or even across town would be challenging for most children. What happened may be completely out of your control. If you feel like you’ve tried everything you know to help your child adjust, you might want to consider seeking professional help to guide you as you seek to assist your child in dealing with their ongoing feelings of unhappiness.* If your child has health issues or mental health issues, seek professional help.

We want our children to be the best they can be. We want successful, smart, and happy kids. Providing them with emotional and physical security along with age-appropriate behavioral expectations goes a long way. Creating an environment for them to flourish and grow begins with you.

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How to Protect Your Family’s Mental Health

These things can help when life seems to be out of control.

Nothing seems normal these days. Many people say, “I just keep pinching myself thinking I’ll wake up and this nightmare will be over.” Sometimes life can take a real toll on everyone – both physically and mentally. As you continue to navigate through these times, there are ways you can be intentional about protecting your family’s mental health.

For starters, it’s important to continually remind ourselves that when we’re going through something that’s very unusual, we remain in a heightened state of anxiety and stress that impacts our mental and physical health.

family's mental health

One thing that can help you regain your footing is to establish routines, rituals, and structure.

In times of high anxiety and stress, the consistency of routines and structure is soothing to everyone. 

Make your home a peaceful place—a refuge from all the craziness going on in the world.

Spend some time thinking about things you can do to create calm. Play calming music, light a lavender candle and let the sunlight in. Encourage your children to find a comfy spot where they can read or play with their toys.

Be self-aware.

Your children are like sponges. Whether you notice it or not, they’re watching your every move, your facial expressions and even listening to your conversations that don’t include them. They’re quick to pick up and take on your stress and anxiety. Have adult conversations out of the hearing range of your children. Be proactive in dealing with your emotions.

Be open and intentional about having conversations about things that are going on in your world.

Ask your children to tell you what they know or have heard. Use their information as a platform to affirm accurate information and correct inaccurate details. Assure them that your job is to make sure they are cared for and protected and you are doing that.

Exercise, getting enough rest and eating right are three essentials for protecting your family’s mental health.

This is like the trifecta right here! Walk as a family and insist that people get the rest they need. Involve everyone in creating fun, healthy meals.

Limit the amount of time you and your family members watch the news.

This one action can dramatically decrease the anxiety, stress, anger, fear and drama in your home. Mentally and emotionally, our brains and bodies aren’t meant to live in a constant state of stress, but that’s exactly what happens when we watch news nonstop.

Think of ways you can be helpful to others.

During difficult times, it’s easy to become focused on yourself and all that’s wrong with the world. A great way to combat this as a family is to look for ways to help others. Deliver food, do yard work, run errands, bake bread or cookies and share them with your neighbors. (Let your kids do a ring and run when they deliver. It can be your secret!)

Make play a priority.

Seriously. Play releases all the feel-good hormones that promote an overall sense of well-being. Heaven knows we could all use a triple dose of that right now. Ride bikes, go for a hike, play hide and seek, tag, kick the can, four square, hopscotch, double dutch jump rope or any other active game you can think of. Just get moving!

Remind yourself and your family members there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

This is hard and there are parts of dealing with life right now that are not fun, but together as a family, you can do hard things. When one person’s having a hard day, other family members can be encouraging and affirming to help them get through it. Having healthy relationships with each other is one of the best ways to protect your family’s mental health.

When parents model and lead using these strategies, children learn how to navigate through hard times in healthy ways. It shows you believe they have what it takes to keep going even when things get really challenging. This builds self-confidence and helps them learn how to think and be creative in the midst of change. 

A side note: if you feel like members of your family aren’t handling all that is going on well, don’t hesitate to seek help. Talk with their pediatrician and/or a counselor to seek guidance on other ways you can help them.

If you or someone you know is struggling and you need immediate assistance, you can find 24-hour help here:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Hotline: 800-662-HELP (4357)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)

Photo by Elly Fairytale from Pexels