My Son is Sad – How can I Help Him?

What do you do when your child feels sad? How can you help him? Recently a parent and dear friend contacted me about her five-year-old son. I wanted to share our interaction because I think this is a common experience of parents. She has given me permission to share the exchange.

Tonight there was a Lego building night at the local library. There were tons of pieces so kids can find cool stuff and build whatever they want. The theme was Dr. Seuss. He’s loving it. Then it is time to go. He asks about being able to go back and finish it or change it another night.

It’s a monthly event so not really.

He then talks about how he’s sad that he didn’t get to finish it. He couldn’t find more pieces to add the wings, he didn’t get to add people, etc. All this over the 20 minutes after we get home. Generally he is happy but he keeps mentioning the parts he didn’t get to do instead of the cool stuff he did do.

We talk about focusing energy on being grateful and the cool stuff versus being sad. He turns his language around but then a couple minutes later it’s clear he remembers something else he would have liked to have added or done and “is sad”.

It hurts me as a parent to see my son sad. How can I help him?

Let Him Feel Sad

First, it is important to let him be sad. Sadness is a natural feeling. He isn’t clinically depressed… just sad. It is wonderful that he can put how he feels into words. Unfortunately, kids that young are still struggling with verbal expression. Despite how mature he sounded, the connection between the words and the actual feelings isn’t there in the same way as it is for most adults. Play is the native language of children. Expressing feelings verbally isn’t really effective until at least the age of 12. This is indicated by the fact that he doesn’t seem to feel any better no matter how much he talks about his sadness. This is not uncommon for children his age. He can talk about his feelings but they seem stuck and unresolved.

So, let him be sad. You can make statements of empathy and just reflect and acknowledge his feelings. You can say things as simple as “I know you are sad,” or “You’re sad that you can’t build more with the Legos.” This helps him feel connected to you and in touch with his own feeling experience.

Expressing Feelings

Next, you can help him express his feelings effectively. Feelings are a lot less burdensome and scary when they are outside rather than inside. As adults, the act of journaling or talking about our feelings can be healing. But, since he doesn’t have the verbal skills to connect feelings with words in an effective way, we give him other avenues.

You could help him talk and play out his feelings in his own language. Use these questions as a guide:

  • What does your sadness look like?
  • What color is your sadness?
  • How big is your sadness? Can you show me with your hands?
  • What does your sadness sound like? Can you make the sound?
  • Can you draw me a picture of your sadness? Tip: You can also use Playdoh, clay, or even Legos. This all engages the imagination and playful spirit. This method connects the thinking, language centers of his brain with the emotional centers and thus, promotes healing.

Handling Overwhelming Feelings

Finally, how do we handle feelings that overwhelm us? We can distract ourselves, but that doesn’t really provide healing. Deep breathing is great. If he is a Sesame Street fan, Elmo has a great video on Belly Breathing.

Deep breathing has been shown to create measurable, physical response to stress. I would focus on activities that build resilience and coping skills. For example, bilateral movement promotes whole-brain thinking, integrating the thinking, feeling and doing parts of the brain together (walking, ball-play, dancing, sports, etc). Another method is taking a walk while you talk. The change of scene help those feelings get un-stuck. Also, you can practice bilateral movement and build positive attachment with a caring adult if you do it together. Additionally, help him redirect to things he is good at doing. This is not distraction, but resilience building.

Practicing Gratitude

I love the mention of reinforcing gratitude. However, it sounds like he can’t engage with that in the moment. You can increase moments of gratitude when he is not sad. This would help pay it forward, fortifying him for when he is having a rough time later.

We all have things that we do to self-regulate, whether it is listening to music, twirling your hair, jiggling your leg, sucking on a lollipop, chewing fingernails, or clicking your pen. As a parent, I am sure that you know what works for him. It might just be giving him a big warm hug and telling him that you know he is sad. Statements of understanding and empathy (rather than trying to fix it) might go a long way. Help him connect (in the neutral times) with activities that help him feel resilient and strong. As a parent, be observant and aware of these activities. Then try to key him into them when he is having these big feelings.

As a loving, caring parent, I know that you want your child to feel good. But allowing him to be sad will help him know the full range of emotions. It will also help the good moments shine brighter. It is great that you are attuned to his feelings. He is fortunate to have you for a mom.

Recommended reading:

These are three great books to help understand the connections within the brain and how to help our kids with their feelings and behavior.

By John Richardson-Lauve, Director of Mental Health and Trauma and Resilience Education

John Richardson-Lauve is a licensed clinical social worker with over 20 years of experience working in community mental health. He is committed to supporting and strengthening individuals and communities that struggle with adversity. His experience includes work with chronically mentally ill adults, substance abuse, residential youth care, foster care, and outpatient mental health. He has worked with homeless veterans in New York City, in a hospice home for those with HIV in the early stages of the AIDS crisis, and six years living in a home with eight teenage girls in foster care. John is an experienced trainer, lecturer, and keynote presenter. He is the Director of Mental Health and Lead Trauma and Resilience Educator at ChildSavers. John and his wife have a nine-year-old son and together, they have worked with over 50 children in foster care in their home.

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