Boo! Are you afraid of your child's unpleasant feelings?

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What’s so scary about a feeling? After all, as explained by the world-renowned neuroscientist, Antonio R. Damasio, “feelings are what arise as the brain interprets emotions, which are themselves purely physical signals of the body reacting to external stimuli.” Some feelings like being cold in the winter time are pretty easily related to. While we freely reach for a coat to warm us when we are cold, we are less likely to acknowledge and respect the less physical feelings we experience. Indeed many adults are unaware of the existence of their true feelings and even less so how those feelings are driving their moods and behaviours.  From my practice working with parents for the last 15 years, I have concluded that a failure to acknowledge and respect our child’s feelings is the single greatest impediment standing in the way of most parents achieving a happier more harmonious family life.

It’s not surprising this is so. Somewhere along the line our ancestors concluded that emotions were scary things. I can understand this. Think about how it must have felt to live in Europe in 1942-45 for example. Terrifying. Emotions would have had to be snuffed out in order to continue to function. When survival needs are not being met, there is little room for anything else. Safety, food and water trump sadness. When you are frightened that you may not live another day there isn’t time to meditate on your rage or despair. In other words it was adaptive for our forebears to ignore their emotional world. In many families, any situation that was charged with big emotions was treated like toxic waste - quickly bundled up and put somewhere where it wouldn’t harm anyone. Parents who wanted to protect their children from the pain of reality might have acted as if the situation didn’t exist by ignoring it or hushing their child whenever the child asked about the situation.  But the upshot of treating emotionally charged situations in this way is that children are lead to believethat feelings are so dangerous that they are routinely and briskly shoved into the metaphorical cupboard under the stairs. 

Most adults today were given little experience on how to handle difficult emotions. Had we been given guidance and practice we likely would have concluded that emotions come and go, and are sometimes pleasurable and sometimes not. We would be able to recognise an emotion and give it a name and allow it to inform our personal narrative. We might even be able to understand how our emotional life informs our decisions and behaviour and make changes in what we do based on a clear understanding of those emotions. 

What parents of today’s generation have inherited is an inability in many situations to be able to identify that there are feelings lurking in the shadows. They were never taught that sadness felt like this and despair felt like that. Those funny sensations they felt were quickly papered over with rational admonishments to “buck up” or “quit your snivelling" or “I’ll give you something to cry about.” In short the foundations were laid for a generation of people with very little emotional intelligence. When Daniel Goleman wrote about Emotional Intelligence in 1995 he popularised the idea of an Emotional Quotient (EQ), which is a measure of one’s ability to identify, use, understand, and manage emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathise with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict. This was well after the date that most of today’s parents were raised. So that’s your get out of jail free card. It’s not your fault that you don’t know how to do this. But it is your responsibility to learn how to do this. That is assuming your goal in parenting is to raise capable, responsible, beings who can find work and love and exist peacefully within constructive and productive communities.

We have inherited from our parents and they from theirs an anxiety that surrounds the acknowledgement of feelings that are difficult to bear such as sadness, lonliness, despair, shame and anger. If a parent's job is to keep their child safe, how does that parent acknowledge that sometimes bad things happen? There are big, awful feelings. When my mother who suffers from Alzheimers Disease and lives in a care home says she’s ready to go home it breaks my heart. When a loved one dies and we miss their company so desperately, we may find it hard to go on.  These are situations where there is nothing that can be done to fix the situation. And therein lies one of the great reasons we don’t want to acknowledge feelings. Why acknowledge a feeling when you cannot do anything about it? It’s a fair point but not an effective one. Our minds know that we are covering up acknowledging a feeling. Many addictive behaviours result from our searching for something that will distract us from the pain of those original feelings. In the end, the addiction becomes far more painful and ruinous than the original feeling. It is true that sometimes when we have a feeling there is little we can do about it but we are still better off to recognise that sad/awful feeling and to sit with it for awhile. We should give it a name such as shame and think about why we feel that way. Much the way we might just stop to appreciate the good things in life, we need to stop and acknowledge the bad as well. Our brains benefit from this sort of exercise. When we acknowledge and make sense of our feelings, our brains release particular neurochemicals that help us calm down and return to equilibrium. 

It is also true that many times feelings are really not that terrible at all. Feelings are quite transitory, lasting seconds or minutes not lifetimes. It is our fear of facing our feelings that actually becomes problematic. And so it is with our children. When we jolly them out of their bad moods or ignore the despondent face they have when they get home, or shame them out their feelings of anger and rage, we are sending several unintentional messages such as 1. your feelings are frightening to me so let’s not acknowledge them and/or 2. your feelings are unimportant to me, I would rather be happy than know about what is bothering you and/or 3. I have no idea what to do with your feelings and that makes me feel incompetent. 

How do parents deny their children’s emotions? The tactics are plentiful. Distraction is a good one - “Oh look at the butterfly” said to comfort the wailing child may be an early beginning. “Don’t be silly - there are no monsters under the bed” is another common one. “Never mind, there are lots of nice children who will want to play with you” said consolingly to the child who has complained that no-one at school wants to play with them.  “Don’t be horrid. You don’t hate your brother” said to your child who has just watched his younger sibling destroy something he made. We don’t want our child to be sad or be so angry they are ready to resort to violence. So in an effort to change what we don’t like, we use these tactics to push away the scary feelings our child has expressed. The problem is that we are missing an opportunity to connect with our child at times like these. We are shirking one of our parenting responsibilities which is to help guide our child through their challenges. We are losing the chance to build connections in their brains between their emotions and their cognitive response to those emotions.

Behaviour is always a barometer of an individual’s internal equilibrium. This is especially true for children who haven’t learned to control themselves. How they are acting is a clue to how they are feeling. Parents who focus on the behaviour miss an opportunity to learn about what is driving that behaviour. Parents who deny the feelings their child is experiencing are sending messages to their child about those feelings. Instead of dreading these “scary” feelings welcome them as ways to help your child to develop into the mature well-adjusted person you want them to become.