What I Learned About Emotions From a 6-Year-Old

A few years ago, a good friend invited me to his 6-year-old daughter’s birthday party. 

As I walked through his front door, I was greeted by the cheerful sound of children running around… their tiny feet pounding on the hardwood floor as they expertly avoided the table full of gifts in the living room. 

Their parents looked just as delighted, many of them enjoying the opportunity to finally have adult conversations (even if they were being interrupted by their little ones every few minutes). 

My friend’s daughter was particularly excited on her special day. 

At one point, she bounced down the stairs holding a giant helium balloon in the shape of an exotic parrot. She tied the string to her hand and paraded it around proudly, followed by a swarm of children pleading for a chance to hold it for “just a few minutes.”

By this time, most guests had moved to the backyard to enjoy the sunny weather. I was chatting with a friend on the porch, observing the celebration in full swing, when all of a sudden I heard a loud scream. 

I quickly turned to see what all the commotion was about. To my surprise, I saw the coveted parrot balloon gently floating away, its bright colours dancing defiantly against the clear blue sky. And directly below it was my friend’s daughter… having a full-blown 6-year-old meltdown.

Undeterred, my friend went over to the middle of the backyard where his daughter was standing and brought her back to a quiet area on the porch next to where I was sitting.

I wanted to give them privacy, but the mediator in me was secretly glad to be able to overhear how he was going to handle this predicament. I was used to dealing with adults in conflict. That said, I had minimal experience with 6-year-old meltdowns. 

I listened intently as he leaned over and gently said to her, “You’re upset and that’s okay. You can be upset, but not here because we have guests at home. Why don’t you go upstairs to your room and you can be as upset as you want there. Would you like me to come with you and cuddle with you?”

His daughter stopped wailing… sniffed a couple of times… and shyly nodded yes to her father’s offer.

I think my mouth was hanging open at this point. 

Like many people, I grew up with the well-intended message that I should not feel certain emotions. “Don’t be upset” and “don’t cry” were common phrases in my family. 

As adults, we often unconsciously send ourselves the same messages from our childhood. We distract ourselves instead of processing our emotions. Feeling sad? I bet there’s a great new series to binge-watch. Upset about something? Why not take another peek at your online shopping cart.

A little distraction never hurt anyone. But if it’s the only strategy we use, it short-circuits our emotional processing and causes our feelings to linger and fester.   

I’m not sure what my friend said or did in the room with his daughter. I imagine he gave her a big hug and let her cry her little heart out so that she could properly grieve the loss of her special balloon.

What I do know is that she emerged back at her birthday party feeling calm and smiling… and she was able to enjoy the rest of the celebration with her friends – birthday cake, regular balloons, gifts and all.

This experience left me wondering about all the moments in my life that I had missed out on because of unprocessed emotions. 

How many moments, big or small, had I not appreciated because I was ruminating about the past or worrying about the future? 

What was the hidden cost of this on my relationships, work, and well-being? 

At the end of my life, how would I feel about the time that I spent missing out on my life instead of being more fully present?

I stared into space, pretending the admire the beautiful backyard, as I contemplated these questions.

When I went home that evening, I made a life-changing decision.

I decided that whenever I felt like that little girl who lost her balloon, I’d take some quiet time and allow myself to feel my emotions. I’d especially make sure to feel the uncomfortable ones… disappointment from unmet expectations… frustration caused by stress at work… sadness resulting from the loss of something precious to me.

I can’t say that it’s always pleasant to dive headfirst into the depths of your pain. Sometimes I need to take a break and make good use of those distraction tactics. When I do, I remind myself that it’s not about being perfect… it’s about being whole.

My hope is that when I look back on my life at the end of my days, I’ll know that I embraced all of the emotions we humans are designed to feel. And that because of this, I was able to enjoy more of my life feeling calm and smiling… just like that lovely little 6-year-old girl.

So I’m curious… what have you learned about emotions from the children in your life?

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