Over the past couple of weeks I have had so many conversations with children and families about situations that evoke complicated emotions. Parents of preschoolers have shared worries regarding their children’s safety at a time when mask mandates are being lifted. Children have spoken about being excited to be at school without a mask and also feeling nervous to be around large groups of classmates who aren’t wearing masks. Adolescents have talked about how to balance intense worry about the state of the world with the need to compartmentalize those fears so that they can complete their schoolwork and do what needs to be done in their day-to-day lives.
These conversations have prompted me to write to you today about an important way to promote children’s psychological well-being: supporting a child’s understanding of having mixed feelings. Every week I speak with parents who are simultaneously exhausted and frustrated by parenting their children and also feel so much love and compassion for children whose childhood experience has been altered in such profound ways by the pandemic. Parents can use this experience of holding contradictory emotions in mind to reflect on how to support a child’s ability to cope with the experience of having mixed feelings.
In my office, when I acknowledge the existence of mixed or ambivalent emotions, children are universally relieved to talk about how confusing it can be to have mixed feelings. We talk about how it can be tricky to have different reactions to the same person or situation. I also normalize this way of feeling and let children know that identifying and coping with ambivalent feelings is an important part of understanding yourself and your experiences and reactions.
A simple way to acknowledge a child’s ambivalent emotions is to use the phrase, “Two things are true…” Here are some additional sample scripts to support conversations about holding two (or more) feelings in mind at the same time:
“I see you jumping around, and I hear you talking fast and asking so many questions. Looks like you feel really excited for this birthday party and I wonder if you’re also worried about it.”
“I know you have so much fun with Sam when it’s just the two of you, and I hear you saying that Sam can sometimes say mean things when other kids are around. That’s confusing. Let’s talk more about it.”
“It sounds as though part of you wants to try woodworking class and part of you is nervous. Lots of times kids have mixed feelings about trying new things.”
“So, part of you feels bad for your brother that his bike is broken, but most of you feels mad at him for using your bike without asking. Did I get that right?”
“I hear that you’re deeply upset about the war in Ukraine. That makes sense. It’s a heartbreaking situation. And another part of you is so excited to take your driving test. That makes sense, too – it’s a huge milestone. It’s ok for you to be excited at a time when you feel awful about things that are happening in the world. Both things can be true.”
“Sounds like two things are true: you get along well with most of the co-workers at your new job and you also feel frustrated that your boss doesn’t listen to your ideas.”
Understanding the complexity of mixed emotions is something that many adults are working on in one way or another throughout much of their lives. Starting this conversation now will help your children build a foundation for increased self-awareness and emotional literacy.