All I want for Christmas
It is five days before Christmas and we’ve just returned from dinner at a friend’s house. We’re all full of pasta and friendship and Christmas lights twinkling across our windows. The cold darkness outside transforms our 800 sf into a holy haven every night. “It’s so good to be home!” I’m likely to say after a full 1.86 hours out of the house. Rose grabs her rat and we settle down on the couch to read a little about the Manhattan Project.
“Mama?” Rose interjects just as we’re getting to the first atomic bomb test, so suspenseful it reads like a Stephen King novel.
“I’m feeling jealous about not having a lot of presents under our tree. It’s not like at some people’s houses where they have SO MANY presents. They can just write a list to Santa and then their parents have to get them everything on the list!”
“Oh honey – did you notice some houses full of presents recently?”
“Yeah. And we don’t have that many.”
I scroll through all my possible responses, the explanations, the reassurances, the advice-giving, none of which actually say: I hear your pain. (And sure, we can minimize children’s pain when it comes in the form of jealousy for stuff, but I can remember having dinner at a friend’s beautiful, spacious house this summer and coming home to my bitty kitchen and feeling distinctly envious).
Rose is listing off the houses where presents surround trees like a moat. And admittedly, there is a part of me that has a slight agenda for both of my children to be the next Dalai Lama. So, when I see the humanness of their greed, jealousy, competitiveness and anger, I can feel fearful, or disappointed that their Bodhisattva training is not quite complete. And yet, could you imagine if in your pain, a friend reminded you of how un-saintlike your thinking was?
I have no idea what’s happening here.
An empathetic response:
I choose to respond to Rose with pure empathy, knowing that just being understood helps us move through challenging emotions. Empathizing doesn’t mean you agree, just that you can see someone’s position and want them to know they’re heard, which can create just a little bit of space between ourselves and the feeling.
“Oh Rosie, can I hug you? It must be hard to see houses where Christmas is a really big holiday, where so many presents surround the tree. You can imagine all those cool things wrapped up that you might like to receive.”
I reach for her and she stiffens.
(Col realizes that book-reading is temporarily on hold, grumbles and gets up, but he gets the message that in this family, there is always time to work with difficult feelings, even at…sigh, bedtime, as often is the case. My hope is that as Col and Rose get older they will always make the time to work with their own difficult feelings rather than turn to all the numbing/distracting/pleasurable things that American media suggests instead).
“Why can’t we just do Santa?” Rose asks.
“That’s not a tradition that felt right to me and Daddy. But I can see how it sounds like such fun to write a list of what you want and just have it appear. Does that sound so awesome?”
“And, do you like the idea of watching those presents build under the tree?
“You feel like you’re missing out.”
“I can understand that, honey.”
I can tell Rose is starting to feel better because her muscles relax and she sinks into me. I squeeze her and ask if she wants to talk about solutions. We generate some potential solutions for next year, none of which involve buying more things. Ideas: wrap everything hyper-individually (each colored pencil? Oy!) so there are more presents under the tree; save some Hanukkah gifts for Christmas; wrap some utilitarian things that we have bought for them anyway (socks, mittens) so there are more presents under the tree. Rose seems satisfied, and not really that attached to any solution, but pleased to know that we’re willing to brainstorm. We go back to reading. She leans into me and I can feel her nervous system return to balance.
What you don’t see: that Rose has been improv-singing nonstop for forty minutes at the lego pile. If Col joins a monastery someday in which monks take a vow of silence, no one will be surprised.
Here are all the responses that are not empathy:
Advice giving: Being grateful for what you have will bring you true happiness.
Reassurance: You’ll probably really love some of those presents under the tree.
Minimization: Honey, this isn’t a real problem. Some kids don’t get any presents for Christmas.
Denial of Feelings: But you love Christmas!
Avoidance/Distraction: Hey, this book is getting really good, let’s keep reading!
Fixing: Just wait – you might find some more presents under the tree in time!
Judgment: Being jealous is only going to make you feel worse.
Explanation: You got Hanukkah presents, most other kids didn’t.
Diagnosis: Your problem is that you always want what others have.
We like this sort of weather situation, here.
Why this is all I want for Christmas:
I realize later that although jealousy is an emotion that we often feel shame in expressing, Rose’s ability to just say how she felt avoids the sort of meltdowns that come from repressing feelings due to shame, or the meltdowns that come from feeling icky inside but being unable to name or acknowledge the actual emotion present. (I mean really, I thanked her the next morning for just sharing her feelings! Jealousy? No problem, we can work with that!) All I want for Christmas is clear expression of feelings and needs! It is so much easier to deliver empathy directly where it’s needed, than to wade through all the murky confusion of a meltdown.
Bringing an emotion into the light and surrounding it with care, understanding and support can actually transform it very quickly. And all the wonderful adult advice we have for our children cannot be processed when they’re gripped by an intense feeling. If there is information to be shared (such as: we put much of our gift-giving into Hanukkah) this can be heard when the child returns to a “green light” (calm, receptive) state, usually after empathy floods their system with oxytocin, a neurochemical associated with care and connection.
How do you encourage this clear expression of feelings?
Start naming your children’s emotions for them. “I see you felt really disappointed when the plans changed.” “You want that toy and you don’t want to wait, sounds like you feel impatient!” “When you see that kids at school have cookies in their lunches, you feel jealous. You want that, too.” The more children hear this feeling language, the more they will internalize and adopt it themselves.
Allow all feelings. If all feelings have space to be heard, children can share where they’re at, even if at 15 they’re crushed because that boy didn’t text them back (and it is my great hope that my children can share this with me—or someone!–at 15). Children will learn, through being heard and validated, that it is the very nature of human emotion to swamp you like a hurricane, twist you up, and then clear out, leaving chirping birds in the sunny sky of your mind.
With all my love and wishes for peace in your life,
p.s. Rose woke the next morning and never mentioned jealousy over presents again.