Expert Parenting Advice
Practical parenting tips and advice from experts around the world

Death of a Mantis

Why your job is not to make your kids feel better when they are sad...and why letting them experience negative emotions is important.


Charles J. Sharp , CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Today was a sad day for my son. His praying mantis died.

He loves insects. When he sees a cockroach, instead of trying to squish it, he picks it up and proudly shows his "pet" to everyone.

He loves all insects, but his favorite insect is the praying mantis.

Every now and then, he finds one in the garden and puts it in his insect jar.

Each time, a couple of days later, the mantis succumbs to the stress of being a six year old boy's pet, and we go through the mantis mourning stage.

Today was one of those days. My son had found a moth, and as he opened his jar to feed it to his mantis, he looked at me.

"My mantis is dead," he said, his face dropping.

"It looks like it is sleeping," his four year old sister added.

Tears welling in his eye, my son continued, "He's dead. I loved him. He was such a good friend."

My first reaction to seeing him sad was to try to cheer him up. I wanted to say "Don't worry, you'll find a new one."

But then I remembered something that Dr. Hilary Mandzik said when we interviewed her for our book How To Get Kids To Listen.

If your child is feeling scared or sad or otherwise just emotional, my whole mantra around this is just let the feelings be. Just let your child feel what they’re feeling. Don’t try to make them feel better. Don’t talk them out of it. We teach emotion regulation, which is essentially learning how to do the right things with our feelings, by letting our kids feel, in our safe presence.

Hilary Mandzik

So, instead of trying to cheer him up, I told him: "You are really sad now. I can understand, it is always sad losing someone you care for. What did you like about your mantis?"

According to Dr. Hilary, letting kids experience all their emotions, including their negative emotions like being scared or feeling sad, is the single most important thing we can do for our kids to help them develop emotional regulation.

Our job as parents is to help them understand and label their emotions, not to "fix" their negative emotions for them.

In the interview with Dr. Hilary, she shares how to teach children that all their feelings are normal, and how to manage your own emotions when your kid gets emotional or upset.

She also explains why there is no such thing as bad kids (or bad parents). This is something that I personally find incredibly useful when I feel bad about making some inevitable parenting mistake.