Sadly, the spotty grace of four-year-olds can let accidents sneak in even when we’re all being quite careful. One recent pre-bath dance party on a queen-sized bed found the little ones enjoying their stage until our preschooler sat down too close to the edge and toppled backwards. In our household vernacular, she ‘boomed down.’ It might have been okay, because she smiled and laughed and said “Whoa! That was a FUN fall!” But when exclamations of fun are followed by tears, as they were this night, something is usually amiss.
I followed the shaken little girl to the hallway where she was sobbing while laughing between smiles. It was very possibly the most adorable thing I’d ever witnessed: weepy laughter and confused tears.
“Are you okay?” I asked. I sat down before her and she fell into my lap.
“I’m okay,” she laughed, “but I don’t know why I’m crying!” She wiped her tears and sniffed into my neck. “It was so funny, and…so funny that I can’t stop crying!”
We stayed tangled on the floor for a few more minutes while she caught her breath and I rubbed calming circles on her back.
“Why do you think I had to cry, mama?” she asked later.
I thought about it for so long that she got bored and went to find a toy. It was a hard question to answer. After all, I didn’t know exactly how she was feeling, and every time I’d suggested something – “Was the fall a little bit scary?” “Were you embarrassed?” “Did you hurt yourself?” – she had answered negatively. Nothing seemed wrong at all.
It probably had something to do with strong emotions being bound up together in the brain-biology of preschoolers. But, not having clinical insight into that particular science, I couldn’t nail down what was concerning me about the episode of sobbing laughter.
Later, after the kids were asleep for the night, I felt the edge of a discovery. It niggled. It lurked. It begged to be revealed.
It was this: tiny, little kids, have great, big emotions. They are so complex that labeling them with words like ‘stubborn’ or ‘shy’ or ‘willful’ or ‘brave’ falls terrifyingly short of the truth. They are knots of feeling and experience and thought, so intricate and mysterious that sometimes even they don’t realize why they behave the way they do.
Sometimes we forget, and expect the labels to fit securely around little bitty souls that can’t possibly be constrained in such limiting ways. Seeing my daughter weeping and laughing and feeling emotions that didn’t match reminded me: she’s still learning how to the world feels. How it chafes and morphs and provokes.
Our kids need room to feel things freely, even when it’s not as adorable as a crying, laughing confusion. Even when it’s a messy, hard, sadness or a shocking anger. Life is a lot to soak up, and it can be challenging for our kids to assimilate their experiences with their emotional reactions. Adults sometimes expect neat explanations, but our kids need more space and time before their emotions begin to make sense.
In the meantime, we can help them put possible names to their moods by affirming what we see. “You seem frustrated (bored, worried, sad, etc.).” They’ll learn over time how to understand their own emotions. And they’ll learn that their parents can be trusted to love them throughout the process.
Even if we don’t understand it ourselves.