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What to Do When Your Kids Have a Bad Day at School

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We have all been there. It’s pickup time after school and your kid is walking out of the school with their backpack. Even before they get in the car, you can tell something is wrong. Their face is crumpled in a sour expression. They don’t smile or wave at you like usual. Instantly, your stomach clenches into knots. “Oh, no,” you think, “What happened? Did he do bad on his math test? Did the class bully pick on him again? I HATE that kid! I can’t believe the teacher is so clueless about this!”

Before your kid has even sat in the car, you have unleashed a torrent of negative thoughts in your head. As your child opens the door and slinks into the back, anxious energy is reverberating off you. “What happened?” you demand. “Was Owen mean to you? Did you get your grades? What’s wrong!?”

Now, on the outside, it might seem like you are being a great parent. You are tuned into your child’s feelings, and you care deeply about what is happening in their life. You aren’t some absentee or neglectful parent! Nope—you are right there in the thick of it, feeling your kid’s feelings and looking for ways to fix anything that could be wrong in his world.

But here’s my perspective. You are not doing your child any favors by reacting in this manner, for several reasons:

First, your child needs you to be grounding, guiding force in his life. This means that he needs you to be conscious of your own energetic state. Our kids are inherently attuned to our moods, and without us even realizing it, they will mirror what we are putting out into the world. Hence, if we are anxious, their anxiety will triple. If we are angry, they will feel angry or guilty for causing that anger. But, if we can meet them where they are at with calmness and deep acceptance, they will able to feel their OWN feelings and work through their emotions at their own pace.

And parents: Allow your child to be sad. Allow your child to be angry. Verbalize that you are sorry about that and acknowledge their pain. “I am sorry you are so sad. I see that you are hurting right now.” But make sure you stay centered in your own power and strength. Meditate if necessary. Walk away for 10 minutes and take big deep breaths. You have emotional maturity and wisdom that your child doesn’t have. Rely on that for guidance. Remind yourself that sadness is a healthy, normal emotion, and that your child will learn from disappointment and even develop character from it. Remember that a bad day can be made infinitely better simply with a hug, a kiss, a joke and the realization that you are not alone.

Second, your child will react to the world based on your reactions. If he gets in the car and you immediately ask: “What did Owen do!? Was he mean to you?” you are going to plant the story in your child’s head that he is a victim. That Owen is a mean bully and your child is powerless. Here’s a great parenting tip from Michael Thompson: Do not interview for pain. This means instead of asking, “Was Owen mean to you?” simply ask a more neutral question (“How was your day?”) or an empowering question (“How awesome was the weather today? I bet you kicked major butt on the soccer field!”).

This doesn’t mean that we can’t empathize with our children or be witnesses to the pain. But that is the key word: We need to be WITNESSES. When your child says “Gayle wouldn’t share her toys with me,” instead of saying “I can’t believe Gayle was so mean to you! Gayle should have shared her toys! You always share with her. That is not nice at all.” You can instead say, “How did that make you feel when Gayle didn’t share?” and then “I hear that hurt your feelings.”

Now that you know WHY they had a bad day—what do you do?  Psychologist Lawrence J. Cohen has done a lot of work in this field and he advises parents to Acknowledge, bear, and keep perspective—meaning you hear their pain (I hear it made you sad when Gayle wouldn’t share), and that you BEAR the burden. This means you feel the feelings that are caused by your child’s story (anger, anxiety, sadness) and then—you let.it.go. Keep perspective—all children quarrel and all children have bad days and all children argue with their friends. Allow your child to share their pain with you without making the pain about you.

And, be careful of the words you choose to discuss the incident. Don’t use black-and-white language to make your child out to be a victim and the other child to be a cruel oppressor.

As a parent, you are helping to write the words of your child’s inner story. This is not just a story they will tell themselves for a moment, a day, or even a year. It will become the story that is ingrained in their cellular being, the script that they recall decades from now when they are adults and have a bad day at work.

What do you want that script to say? I want my sons’ scripts to say that they are powerful, talented, worthy, and loved—just as they are. So I keep that intention in the forefront of my mind, even on their bad days…especially on their bad days. I remember that when I behave like they are victims or that the world is dangerous or unkind, that they will internalize those messages and feel powerless as a result.  I remember that sadness, anger, and fear are all normal, healthy emotions and are not to be avoided. In fact, they have lessons to teach us and we do untold damage to our children when we teach them to be afraid of these feelings and that they should run, numb, or disconnect from these emotions.

Most importantly, I remember that is it not my job as a parent to make sure my child never has a bad day, but that it is my job as a parent to be a loving, whole, conscious force in their lives. I can’t change the world for them (though I sometimes wish I could!) but I can change my reactions to the world. I can take deep breaths, be aware of my internal state, set intentions for the results I desire, and then I can go out and make that magic happen. And in doing so—I can show my kids they have the exact same ability. And that’s how even a bad day can become a beautiful memory.