When I was in graduate school to become a therapist, I remember one of my professors using a metaphor to illustrate what a therapist does for her clients. She encouraged us to imagine that we held a large, uncovered bowl in our laps, and that our job was to hold that bowl while our clients put their fears, upsets, anger, etc in the bowl.
It seems deceptively simple, but trust me–some emotions are awfully hard to “hold.” Someone who is bitterly angry, or wracked with grief, or sick with guilt–is someone who can be hard to be with in the moment. But, that is one of the things that a therapist is there for. A therapist gives you permission to have whatever feelings you are having, and stays with you, peacefully, without her own agenda, and without changing the subject, making a joke, or running out of the room, no matter how big and scary those emotions may seem to be. She keeps holding the bowl for you.
Many years after grad school, I realized that parenting requires the exact same ability. Only parenting is waaaay harder, because those strong uncomfortable emotions are coming from one of the people I am most emotionally connected to in the world, and frequently–the strong uncomfortable emotions are about ME! (aghhh!) But our children need us to be able to handle their strong and/or uncomfortable emotions. They need us to be able to handle their fear, their disappointment, their sadness, their fury or their injustice–without telling them they “shouldn’t feel that way,” or minimizing, or making a joke, or punishing them. They need to know that you are bigger and stronger than their biggest feelings, because those feelings can be frightening or overwhelming to them.
The next time your child is having BIG emotions, take a deep breath and think about your response for a moment. What does your child need? Perhaps what you need to do is Hold the Bowl.