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Helping kids (and ourselves) master big emotions

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“I need you to spread the cream cheese on my bagel,” my 9-year-old son told me. I shook my head. “No, you don’t. Last I checked, Alex, you have working hands.” He tested my resolve. “Most moms would want to do it,” he said. He then listed a few much nicer moms who probably spread cream cheese on their kids’ bagels EVERY DAY.

I immediately thought of Jessica Lahey, who once watched in disbelief as a mother publicly buttered her teen’s toast. The “Gift of Failure” author blogged about it, concluding with this classic line—“…and therefore, it’s vital that your child be allowed to butter their own toast, to experience that sense of mastery over their breakfast.” I stood firm.

In two days, Alex will go to overnight camp for the first time. He’ll have to make his bed and knot his shoelaces and, fingers crossed, shower once in a while. Maybe even use soap. But beyond these daily tasks, I want him to make a smooth transition emotionally.

I know this part can go haywire. When his older brother Ben first went to camp, he was an even-tempered and mature 10-year-old. We thought he’d be fine. We were wrong. He threatened to run away and wrote us alarming letters pleading to come home. When that didn’t work, he got creative. Like clockwork, he rang the camp director’s doorbell daily at 5 a.m. When the director answered the door, Ben would ask to go home. To my son’s credit, this new approach was far more effective. One evening, the camp called my husband and me. We could tell Ben to pull it together, or we could come and get him. I don’t remember how we talked him off the ledge, but he stayed and ended up having a good time. Much later, he could explain that intense homesickness had blindsided and overwhelmed him.

I thought about that earlier today, when a friend contacted me mid-freak out. She had just gone grocery shopping with her son, who’ll be going to camp with Alex. Her kid spent the whole errand wrapped around her waist like a snake. If she reached for a food item, he clung tighter. “He’s like the Trolls in the movie,” she told me. “He needs hugs every hour. How am I going to leave him at camp?” After we talked, I decided to warn Alex that homesickness has a way of sneaking up on you. He was nonchalant. “That’s not going to happen,” he said. “You know I don’t like emotions.” I laughed. “Yes, there are definitely some emotions I don’t like either,” I told him, “but we don’t always get to pick and choose.”

Camp is mostly lighthearted fun, but it also exposes kids to complicated feelings. Loneliness, insecurity or neediness. Wistfulness or ambivalence about growing up. And they’re away from home, so there’s no parent around to help them process setbacks or keep perspective. We can do our best to ready them when they’re still home with us. We can highlight when other kids are hurting and encourage empathy. We can talk about how to take a deep breath or resolve a disagreement or accept imperfection in ourselves or others. We can admit that we sometimes struggle too, that learning never stops. Most importantly, we can help them label their feelings and tell them we care and understand.

Whether we’re 9 or 49, it’s so powerful to hear, “I get it, and you have a right to feel that way.” Life becomes more complex as we age, but our desire to feel validated stays constant. It’s simultaneously so simple and yet so complicated to bring someone comfort, or to learn to sit with our own discomfort. Which brings me back to spreading cream cheese and fostering independence. If we do our job right, our kids will feel confident they can master both breakfast and big emotions.

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Phyllis Fagell

Phyllis Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor, certified professional school counselor and journalist.

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