Helping Children with Loss – Looking at Myth 1: Don’t Feel Bad

Looking at Myth 1 – “Don’t feel bad”

The logical response to the comment “Don’t feel bad” should be “Why not?”  Unfortunately, as a society we don’t ask that questions.  instead, we keep trying to reinforce the illogical idea that children shouldn’t feel the way they feel.

Imagine that you have just hit your finger with a hammer, and you are jump up and down, howling with pain.  It is unlikely that it would be helpful for someone to come up to you and say, “Don’t feel pain; after all, you didn’t hit yourself on purpose.”  The comment certainly wont reduce the pain, the bleeding, or the selling.  Nor will being reminded that you didn’t hit yourself on purpose make you feel any better.

Now, imagine that someone has just learned that his mother has died in an automobile accident.  Among the very first comments he will hear from loving friends and relatives are: “Don’t feel bad, she lived a long life.”  Or, “Don’t feel bad, at least she didn’t suffer.” Or “Don’t feel bad, she’s in a better place.”

You have heard those kind of comments.  Perhaps you have even said some of them to yourself.  The fact is, you may never have been encouraged to look at them carefully.  This means that you probably say the same sorts of things to your children..  You want your children to be honest, yet you unintentionally encourage dishonesty in them by your incorrect reactions to their normal emotional responses to some of life’s events.  It is appropriate for them to have sad, painful, or negative reactions to sad, painful or negative events.  If you tell your children not to feel what they feel, you are inadvertently suggesting that they should be in conflict with the truth and at odds with their own nature.

Here is an example, from The Grief Recovery Handbook,

of how a child’s normal response to a painful event is often reshaped by adults into what may become a lifelong, incorrect method for dealing with emotions.

A five-year-old girl has had her feelings hurt by the other children on the preschool playground.  She goes home quite upset.  She returns to Mom, Dad, or Grandma, and tearfully spills out her tale of woe.  This healthy, normal expression and display of human emotion is met with the line that all of you already know is coming:  ‘don’t feel bad.  here, have a cookie; you’ll feel better.”  It doesn’t have to be a cookie; even a healthy snack creates the illusion that we soothe feelings by eating.

The child has honestly presented an emotion, a sad feeling, to someone she trusts, a parent, or guardian.  the emotion is immediately dismissed – ‘Don’t feel bad” –  and then anesthetized with food.  think about it.  Load a little body up with food and something will change.  The truth is the child feels different, not better.

She is distracted by the cookie and the energy created by the food, but the painful emotions she experienced haven’t been heard or talked about.  Sometime later, the little girl wants to talk about the event at the playground, and she is told, ‘Don’t cry over spilled milk.”  Again, the child and her emotions have been dismissed.

Sweet but dangerous

The fact that the people who love us do not want us to feel bad is a sweet sentiment, but it’s dangerous.  A child is going to feel what he or she feels whether others approve of it or not.  If the people around the child do not understand that the sad, painful, or negative feelings are normal and helpful, then the child will just go underground and hide his or her feelings.  The child will begin to act fine, because that action is rewarded.  “Isn’t she brave?”  or “Isn’t he strong?”  are the comments children hear when they cover up and bury their sad feelings after a loss.

Without sadness, joy cannot exist

Feeling bad has a purpose.  If you believe in the magnificent design of humans, then you must accept the fact that in order to have the capacity to feel happiness or joy, you must also be able to experience sadness or pain.

Any attempt to bypass sad, painful, or negative emotions can and will have disastrous consequences.

One tragic by-product of the legacy of the simple phrase “don’t feel bad,” is that it often leads to a much worse cliché, “don’t feel.”  Sadly, we have had to help too many people for whom “don’t feel bad” turned into “don’t feel at all.”

We are not Exaggerating

“Don’t feel bad” ( or “Don’t feel sad) is the start of almost every phrase that suggests to children that what they are feeling is wrong.  Here is a short lis that most of you will recognize.

Relating to Pet Loss

Don’t feel bad –

on Saturday we’ll get you a new dog.

Don’t feel bad – it was only a dog [or cat. etc.]

Relating to Death

Don’t feel bad –

she’s in a better place.

his suffering is over.

it’s just God’s will.

you did everything you could.

Grandpa’s in heaven.

Relating to Divorce or Romantic Breakup

Don’t feel bad –

there are plenty fish in the sea

he or she wasn’t right for you

it was just a puppy love [said teenagers especially]

Relating to Children of Divorcing Parents

Don’t feel bad –

This isn’t your fault

Mommy or Daddy will have more time for you

Mommy and Daddy sill love you

You’ll have two of every holiday and birthday [at Mommy’s house and again at Daddy’s house]

Relating to Poor Performance at School

Don’t feel bad –

You’ll do better next time

You did your best

Every one of the above examples begins with the phrase ‘don’t feel bad.”  This is not an exaggeration. It is a realistic representation of how it sounds in real life.  A recent study determined that by the time a child is fifteen years old, he or she has already received more than twenty-three thousand reinforcements that indicate that it is not acceptable to show or communicate about sad feelings.

Just for fun, let’s reverse this notion.

Consider the phrase “don’t feel good,” an idea you’ve probably rarely heard.  The words look silly, don’t they?

Imagine bringing home a report card with all A’s and having your parents say:

Don’t feel good – you’ll do terrible next time.

Imagine telling a friend everything is going very well in your life and having him say:

Don’t feel good – things are going to get worse.

Imagine telling someone that you’re in love and having her say:

Don’t feel good – remember the divorce rate is 50 percent.

Odd thought, isn’t it?

Why is it okay to feel good when something pleasant happens, but it is not okay to feel sad when something painful happens?

It is normal and natural to feel happy in response to positive events.  It is equally normal and natural to feel said in response to negative events.  However, it is neither normal nor natural to dismiss any human emotions as not valid.  the single largest source of emotional confusion in our society stems from the patently false idea that we somehow should not allow ourselves to experience sad, painful, or negative feelings.

When our children are infants, they communicate all feelings, happy and sad, at the top of their lungs.  At a certain point, we start training children to believe that having sad feelings and communicating about these feelings is not okay.  To the child’s developing mind, it becomes a simple choice:

Happy feelings are good, and get rewarded


sad feelings are bad, and get punished.

From an early age, children learn the rules of the road.  They are very clear as to which behaviors are rewarded and which behaviors are discouraged.  that is why you need to make an objective evaluation about your own ability to understand or deal with feelings of pain or sorrow.

Just as you were watching your parents when you were young, your children are watching you now!


From the book.  . When Children Grieve written by John W James  and Russell Friedman with Dr. Leslie Landon Matthews

There is help . .

If you are interested in participating in the Renew Your Possibility – As Children Grieve 6 week Study group, sign up here.

This is a complimentary study group that will provide you some incredibly valuable safety tips and tools that you will be able to use for the rest of your life and your children’s lives.  I guarantee it.

Or, if you are not ready to take that step, purchase the book “When Children Grieve here . .

Or download one of the ebooks under the resources page and read up on grief.

Another option is to Schedule a 15 minute complimentary call to share what your experiencing so you can ask me questions.

Just take that first step.  Do something that you have not done before.  It’s ok, that your not ok, yet please don’t stay stuck in grief.  There is light on the other side.

Remember, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.” Plato

Yours in Gratitude and to Renewing Your Possibility. . .

Debbie  Your Grief Recovery Specialist®