Letting him be sad.


August 22, 2016 by Dadinator

My son has a sad, old and tired lunchbox. It’s falling apart, there’s no escaping that fact. It is on its last legs, if it still has any legs left at all. I felt a pang of nostalgia when I saw it. It had lasted through day care and through 3-year-old kinder. It was our son’s first lunchbox, and I felt an odd emotional connection to it. (I once got emotional over a back pack, so that’s just me I suppose).

So I decided to show it to The Lad. In my head it would be one last look at this relic of his past before we sent it off into the great beyond of the kitchen bin. We would pause to remember its noble spirit, how it served us all well, and then set it afloat in a shop and shoot a flaming arrow at it. I really like viking funerals….

Here’s what they look like new:

And here’s what his looks like now:

Truck lunchbox

He was happy to see it. He hadn’t used it in months, it had been sitting neglected in the cupboard for a substantial period gathering dust, but seeing it again made him happy. He cuddled it, as he is often want to do, and he paused to remember the good times.

Then I told him that it was broken and it was time to put it in the bin so he could get a new lunch box.

And he paused.

His lips trembled.

And he cried. Not the screaming tortured cries of a tantrum, but the lip-quivering, soul-destroying despair of a boy who was just plain sad. Intensely sad. Perhaps the saddest I had seen him. He sobbed as tears filled his eyes and he cried quietly to himself.

What had I done? Somehow I had amused an emotional rupture in the boy,  traumatising him by suggesting that this lunchbox needed to go in the bin. I cuddled him, much as I found his outburst absurd I am never one to stifle them when he expresses them.

Besides often at times in my life this has been me:

Eventually we helped him settle again with promise of a new lunchbox with rockets on it when he started school. He picked it out himself, and in the process of selecting his replacement he calmed down.

Another occasion, out of the blue, he got the same look. It was a distant and sad look. The kind of look I’d expect to see from an old man remembering watching his childhood home being demolished or something. It was strange to see it on a 4-year-old.

“What is it Lad?”
“I’m thinking about my balloon”
“Which one?”

We’d been at a birthday party the weekend before and I discovered one of my parenting super powers is my ability to blow up balloons that are almost impossible to blow up. Seriously, I played brass instruments in high school (I was super cool! Yeah!), and it has finally paid off.

He didn’t answer, but the penny dropped.

“Your balloon that you lost at the fireworks?” I asked

The balloon that he lost at the fireworks were lost at fireworks about 5 months ago. It was a helium balloon with a ribbon on it, you know the kind. It was tied to his wrist, but not quite well enough, and it flew away. The Lass offered him her balloon at the time, but he still spent most of the fireworks and light show grieving for the loss of his balloon. The festival (at The Great Stupa in Bendigo) were pretty good by the way.

And at this moment, after nearly 5 months had passed, the memory and the sadness he felt for that balloon came flooding back to him.

Today He wanted to play Star Trek on my phone and I’d said no. We launched into a discussion about screens and he was insisting that they were the most interesting thing in the world. Yes that’s an issue I need to work on with him, and I started to work on it then and there. We talked about all the other things he does that are fun, and eventually we got to this one:

“What about your friends at kinder? They’re better than screens”
His face suddenly changed again.
“Oh I’m thinking about ……”

He was remembering a mate of his at kinder that had moved away from the area 5 weeks ago. Again a memory had surged back into his brain. He suddenly switched from argumentative and bullish to melancholic in a few seconds flat. I went from argumentative and bullish to counsellor in a few seconds flat too…

“I know you miss him. It’s hard when someone you like moves away, isn’t it?”

We talked it over together, and he went into the bath sighing.

There’s something raw about the way a 4-year-old experiences emotions. He’s not had enough lifetime to build “perspective” as we adults like to call it. From what I can gather ‘perspective’ is when an adult has spent enough time being sad that they understand there are lots of levels of sadness.

When a 4-year-old feels sad he feels it with ever fibre of his beautiful soul, even if it’s just for a balloon, because he hasn’t spent much of his life feeling sad. There’s no levels, no barometer. There’s just feeling sad. He sighs, he frowns, maybe he cries. His body goes into the emotion, and he dwells on it for a time.

So what do I do? Not much. I sit with my son and let him be sad, tell him that it’s okay to feel sad and that I love him. I ask him if he wants anything from me, and he never does, and we sit until the sadness passes. Because it always does.

“Dad gets sad too sometimes when he remembers things.”

I fight the urge to divert, to distract or to try to “cheer him up”, because he’s quite capable of doing that himself, and it’s something I want him to learn to do. It’s hard, because we always want to “fix” our kids problems or to make these things easier for them.

If I want him to learn to cope with his feelings, to process them and manage them, the most important thing I can do for him now is to let him feel them.


11 thoughts on “Letting him be sad.

  1. What a great Dad you are! It is so so hard to see them sad and I do tend to want to rush in, smooth it over and do anything to stick that smile back on his face. Well played.

  2. Larry says:

    It sounds like The Lad gets really attached and is sensitive. The way you handled these incidents and your general attitude sounds very supportive. Btw, I agree – sometimes we have to let ’em be sad.

  3. Maxabella says:

    I can still raise a tear for a pair of CherryLane shorts I saved for when I was 15. Took me months to get the cash together. A day after I finally purchased them, I spilled bleach straight down the front. I cried for days. I’ve never really got over it. So, yeah, I totally get it. Intense sadness is a really important emotion, I think. I bet your lad grows up to be an empathetic serial helper like me. x

  4. Mumma McD says:

    It’s often hard to watch them feel all the feelings… but so important :).

  5. I love this post. My two are like elephants. They never forget. And the emotion … there’s plenty of it in our house.

  6. Hugzilla says:

    I deadset wish that more fathers of boys were like you. We need to dismantle those toxic tropes of masculinity that force our boys to repress their emotions.

  7. HandbagMafia says:

    This is so lovely. A boy that can feel his feels is gonna grow into a good man. A proper good one, not the ones that parade around the internet telling everyone how good they are.

    • Here’s hoping. It’s not 100% of the answer, but it’s a start. The main thing is that I never want him to feel ashamed of feeling sad/angry/hurt etc… I want him to acknowledge it, name it and process it in his own time.

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