How to Help Kids Express Sadness

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I once worked with a child who was always happy. It didn’t matter if someone teased him; he was happy. It didn’t matter if he had his video games taken away for three days for teasing his sister; he was happy. It didn’t matter if he didn’t understand a single thing in school; he was happy. Happy was his go-to emotion if you asked him how he felt about anything.

The thing is, he didn’t actually know how to express any other emotions. Was he actually happy all of the time? Of course not! He had meltdowns when he was overwhelmed. He yelled when he was frustrated. He even stayed up some nights full of worry. But he knew that happy was good. He also knew that his parents wanted him to be happy. So he put on a happy face as much as humanly possible.

Many kids struggle to understand that people process and cope with a wide range of emotions on any given day. Young kids tend to be pleasers by nature, and they also try to bounce back quickly. The problem is that when they don’t learn to express and cope with other emotions (particularly the “negative” emotions), they learn to stuff their feelings down until they explode.

Once that little boy learned that it’s okay to be mad and sad and it’s perfectly acceptable to verbalize and work through those emotions, he actually did become a happier child.

When you don’t have to hide your negative emotions, the world becomes a happier place.

Try these strategies to help your child work through feelings of sadness:

Normalize it.

As parents, we tend to hide our big feelings from kids. We don’t want to project our issues onto our kids, so we don’t let them see us feeling sad, angry, or overwhelmed. That can backfire.

{ MORE: If Mom Is OK, Child Is OK }

Kids always look to their parents to figure out how the world works. They learn to process and cope with emotions by watching us work through our emotions. If all they ever see is happiness plastered across our faces, they will do the same.

Talk about times you’ve felt sad. If you are struggling with something sad right now, it’s okay to let them see you cry and talk about how you will work through it. When a close family friend passed away this year, I cried with my kids. We talked about how different the world will be without her in it and what we can do to keep her memory alive.

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How to Help Kids Express Sadness

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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