Humankind has achieved amazing things. We have travelled in space, overcome disease, developed mind-blowing technology and created societies where we work together for the greater good. However, there is a basic flaw often undermining all our hard work. We believe we are supposed to always be happy.
Of all the feelings that make up the complex beast that is a human, we are most committed to happiness. The problems with this mindset are numerous but let’s start with three:
- Happiness is transient so we could spend our whole lives searching
- We start to believe there is a problem if we aren’t happy
- We mislead our children into believing they too should always be happy and so if they’re not they perceive it as failure.
Being a whole human is about being happy, sad, frustrated, joyful, angry, disappointed, peaceful, grateful, overwhelmed, and every other feeling we are born to experience. As parents and educators, it is our job to help our kids acknowledge, accept and regulate all emotions so they are able to travel kindly and gently through life.
It’s a big responsibility!
Guide rather than guard
Kristina Morgan is a clinical psychologist at Lourdes Hill College. She watches some parents expend an enormous amount of energy in protecting their children from so-called negative emotions. The result is kids grow up with a lack of skills for negotiating their emotional landscape. “You develop perspective and skills by having experiences and trying to manage them. Too many parents take away those opportunities. Kids only know they can, when they do.”
I love this statement. It shows the power of guiding your child instead of guarding them against uncomfortable feelings. Kristina says it is important that we let our kids experience discomfort. Not only does it give them opportunities for growth, but it says, “I believe in you and your ability to learn. You may not get it right straight away, but you’ll take a step in the right direction.”
The key here is accepting that emotional growth is like any other learning…it’s incremental. It happens slowly and skills are built one upon the other.
How can parents help with incremental emotional growth?
1. Sit with discomfort…yours and your child’s
Emotions aren’t good or bad, they are comfortable or uncomfortable. Emotions are physical experiences. For example, anxiety is a high-energy uncomfortable feeling. The heat it generates, the rise in pulse and adrenaline all enable us to take physical action if required, but it feels awful.
When we are able to recognise and sit with the emotion it will pass through us and end. No feeling lasts for ever. If we deny the feeling, or push it down, it will fight to be recognised. The old psychologist saying is, “You’ve got to feel it to heal it”.
As parents and teachers, we also have to sit with the discomfort of seeing a child we love and want to protect feeling bad. It’s not easy! We can support them, but we can’t take these perfectly human experiences away from them. These are important growth moments.
Tune in to your child. While you can’t take feelings away, you can be supportive. You can acknowledge that this feeling is uncomfortable or ‘yucky’ and that we all feel like this sometimes. It’s human and they are not alone.
3. Give them broad emotional language
For all the language we give children, most have a surprisingly small emotional vocabulary. Give kids words to describe feelings from a young age. Don’t be worried about big words. If a five-year-old can name 18 different types of dinosaur, they can use words like ‘frustration’ and ‘furious’. Research tells us that the broader a child’s emotional vocabulary, the greater their chance of understanding their own emotions.
4. Deconstruct the experience
Kristina says, “Break down feelings into the physical experiences and the thoughts. What do you feel and where in your body do you feel it? What are you thinking that might make you feel this way? When kids can deconstruct, on even the simplest level, they can start to regulate emotions.”
5. Accept and allow feelings
We need to cultivate from a young age the understanding that we are a safe space for our kids. They should be able to share their vulnerable feelings without the fear of us telling them to ‘pull yourself together’ or ‘don’t be silly’. All feelings are valid.
Even though all feelings are valid, all behaviours are not. Kristina advises that we coach kids to express emotion but never damage themselves or others in the process. This can be difficult for a child in the grip of a strong, uncomfortable emotion. They need us to be calm, empathise and diffuse, not throw in more grenades. Don’t buy into the emotion, diffuse it.
7. Problem solve
Problem solving requires a cool head. It may take hours or days for your child to reach a point where they can talk to you logically about next steps. That’s okay. Try not to give them solutions, help them to problem-solve themselves. Even if they only get a little way towards solving their own problem, it’s a start.
It is likely your child will need a lot of encouragement, as they may already be feeling disempowered. They will also be wary of sounding silly. This is your chance to build them up and show your faith in them. Don’t be afraid to give examples from your own experiences. It will help your child to know you’re a work in progress too.
At the end of the day, remember being a young person is hard. Being the parent of a young person is hard too, so take it easy on yourself. Aim for increments in emotional learning. It’s a long journey and at times you will feel happy, sad, frustrated, joyful, angry, disappointed, peaceful, grateful, overwhelmed, and every other feeling you are born to experience.
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This article was first published for Lourdes Hill College