You Need Me to be Happy
My niece Maddie called me the other day and said, “Aunt Cristina, you need to go see “Inside Out” with us. It is the kind of movie you will love!” How could I refuse such an offer? I headed to the movie after work and excitedly sat next to my three favorite nieces. As a side note, I highly recommend the movie to all parents and kids. It does a wonderful job of not only explaining emotions, but also how the brain works, which is beautifully complicated! I won’t describe the whole movie to you, as I want you to see it, but I do want to highlight an important line from the movie. In the movie the twelve-year-old girl has difficulties adjusting to a cross- country move. She feels pressure in the movie to just “be happy” as that will make life easier for her stressed father and mother. She has an important line at the end of the movie, “You need me to be happy”, which she says to her parents. I want to unpack how that six-word line rings true in our own families.
As parents, it is easy when our kids are sharing their feelings, which evoke our own feelings, to minimize rather than validate their emotional experience. For example, your eleven-year old comes home from school and tells you that no one picked him for the football team at recess. He tells you that he thinks no one picked him because he is a slow runner and dropped a catch the day before at recess. He also thinks that the other guys may not like him and a tear rolls down his cheek. When I hear a child tell me a story like that I feel so sad in that moment and it is an emotional experience that is hard to tolerate. A typical reaction is to say, “Well, I am sure that your friends like you and tomorrow you will play better football.”
While this statement can seem innocent and even helpful on the surface, it is actually problematic. These types of statements serve to invalidate our kids’ feelings and may actually be more of an attempt to help us feel better (Who wants to hear about their child being rejected? That is painful!). It may also send the message that you need them to be happy no matter the circumstances. A more helpful response might be, “Buddy I am so sorry. You must have felt lonely at school today when you did not get to play football with the rest of the guys.” This type of response validates your child’s emotions and sends several powerful messages. Some of these messages include 1) It is okay to feel sad; 2) It is important to name and acknowledge your feelings; 3) We all have feelings and need to learn how to cope with them; 4) I, as your parent, can manage my own emotions even around your feelings; and 5) We can teach our kids to acknowledge their own emotions- as emotions speak volumes about their values. At the end of “Inside Out”, I think the girl is surprised to find that her parents can actually hear and understand her sadness. Further, the family seems closer and relationships are restored due to her sharing. From a Christian perspective, we see our Lord experience many emotions- anguish, fear, sadness, joy, and pain and he never seems to run from or minimize his emotions or the emotions of others. Instead he seems to view them as a path towards healing and restoration. What a wonderful gift to give our children - the ability to hear their emotions in order to lead them to healing and restoration!