By Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D.
I hope it will be said
This article should be read together with Dr. Glenn Peters’ thoughtful article “Fostering the Emotional Development of Your Children” (March 2011). His article should be read first and his advice on conscious parenting should be considered while reading this article.
Teaching children to have a broad emotional vocabulary, with the ability to access the information when appropriate, will hold them in good stead throughout their lives. An understanding of emotional language smoothes the path toward genuine happiness, and increases their ability to form meaningful and lasting relationships. It helps children to develop a sense of self and identity, and to understand themselves. While people can learn the language of emotions at any age, those who learn while young are the most proficient.
One’s comfort with sharing feelings as they occur is greatly influenced by your family of origin, as Dr. Peters’ article demonstrates. Every family probably has some feelings with which they have some discomfort. For some, sharing sadness or anger in their family may have been discouraged. Or, it was “okay” for dad to be angry but no one else. In my family, being “shy” was not okay. We were expected as children to be outgoing and bold. My mother more than once stated that “Harpers (my maiden name) never meet a stranger—just a future friend.” So once when I told my mother I was feeling shy about some social event, she remarked: “That’s ridiculous. You are NOT shy!” Case closed. I grew up using bravado, pretense and denial at times, just so I wouldn’t appear shy. As an adult, however, I became capable of letting myself feel shy and I choose how to deal with it. I don’t think that at my core I am a shy person, but I’ve allowed myself to have the full range—daring, vulnerable, bold and shy sometimes.
I am accompanying this article with a self-inventory on the “psychbyte” page. You may find the self-inventory useful to reflect on which emotions were okay to have or express for yourself and your mother and father. Recently, I gave a talk to a group of parents on this subject, and one of the mothers came up to me after the presentation and said that in doing the exercise, she realized that most of the feelings were not okay, and that in fact it was easier to simply pull out the few that were okay. That brings up an important issue about this topic. Let’s turn to healthy and unhealthy—or dysfunctional—families.
Years ago a client of mine gave me a very effective definition of a “dysfunctional family.” He said that in a “crazy” family you have to develop many different ways of coping, which later on are perfectly useless in your adult life, and if used, lead you into more difficult and conflict laden dynamics. Claudia Black first wrote about the “rules” of unhealthy families where a parent is an alcoholic, but these rules apply in other dysfunctional homes where alcohol was not a problem. Families where physical, sexual or verbal abuse or neglect existed, share some of these common characteristics. (Read Black’s book It Will Never Happen to Me—considered a classic in the field of psychology—if you want a more thorough understanding of alcoholic or dysfunctional families.)
The rules of a dysfunctional family are “don’t talk,” “don’t trust,” and especially “don’t feel.”
Don’t talk. In these unhealthy families, the real issues are often ignored and reasons and excuses are made for problematic behavior. The hope is that if the behavior isn’t discussed, maybe it will go away. With feelings of shame, guilt and fear, the child is not likely to “bring up the elephant in the room.” Children often feel as if they are betraying their parent by talking about the issue. One of my clients finally raised with her parents concerns about her mother’s drinking and the discussion was turned around—against her. Instead, they questioned why she was so sensitive about such matters. In other words, what was wrong with her? She didn’t bring it up again until she was an adult.
Don’t trust. Dishonesty is a big problem in unhealthy families. Parents may insist there is no problem when the child senses there is a serious problem. Sometimes the parents will lie, supposedly “to protect” the children. But without consistency in parenting, and some measure of authenticity, children cannot learn to trust their parents.
Don’t feel. Not feeling or suppressing feelings is one of the best ways to deal with trauma—in the short run. (As my client said about dysfunctional families, this coping “skill” can be utterly useless later in life.) Children in difficult families often feel isolated with all their feelings of fear, worry, embarrassment and desperation. They learn to discount and deny these feelings as they are often scolded for them or ignored. Unfortunately without attention on their emotions, children can grow into adults and then struggle to figure out what they feel, even on a basic level: “Do I like this or not?”
Sometimes when I am working with an individual who starts by saying things such as: “Why in the world would I feel like this? What’s wrong with me? I don’t have any good reason to be this upset!” I know then that some measure of “don’t feel” existed in their family of origin. One of my clients would often say “Oh boo hoo” in a mocking tone whenever she started to cry. I asked her who used to say that to her when she was sad, and she realized she was saying exactly what her mother used to say to her.
A central theme in Dr. Peters’ article is self-reflection, observing your own experience. That requires an acceptance of feelings without harsh judgment. Otherwise, you have an alienation from yourself—one part that has an experience and the other part that is yelling to stop it! As Dr. Peters writes, awareness, meditation, relaxation can all help to learn to regulate your own emotional state. It is important to do some of your own work on your feeling world before addressing your child’s.
If you are a parent and want to help your child develop a broad range of emotions, start right now with your toddler. As most parents realize, toddlers have more effective “receptive” language than “expressive” language. They may be told to go to the couch and get the doll and understand it even if they can’t say it yet. This is a perfect time to begin fueling their feeling vocabulary. You start with simply identifying and naming their experience:
Stating these in a neutral tone (one that isn’t scolding or mocking) or in an empathetic way is the way to begin reflecting these to your child. The child’s emotions are validated (it’s okay to feel like this) just by your simple statement, notice and giving attention to it.
Another component in educating your child about their emotions is in mirroring their facial expressions and gestures. This can be helpful with young children to better learn how to identify and understand other people’s emotional states, as well as their own. One can see another form of alienation when emotional expression doesn’t match the experience. For example, I can remember a client telling me about a terrifying experience, all the time smiling and laughing. When I asked if they were feeling any kind of “happy” feeling they replied “Of course not!”
As any parent of a toddler knows, little children are irrational. They may feel something very intensely, and are often unable to convey what they are upset about. Usually if a toddler is tired or hungry, they are grumpy, angry, crying, etc. It is appropriate to simply take care of their needs, even if they are disagreeing, stating they are upset about something else, when you know the truth. It isn’t bad to tell them they are tired (which they may deny), but the most important thing a parent can do at this point is to see that they get the sleep they need. One parent told me how her little daughter was having a fit because she wanted to stay naked and the mom needed to have her get some clothes on. Helping your child express their feelings doesn’t mean they get their way. (In our family, my husband and I make the rules for our children and they are allowed to express how they feel about it.) You can offer something like this: “I know you are angry because I won’t let you be naked today. We can have some naked time another day, because I know it is fun to be naked, isn’t it? But today, I need you to wear some clothes.” This statement may still be met with tears and anger, but it begins to inform the child that they have a right to their feelings even if the answer is no.
It is important to remember that helping your child express their feelings doesn’t mean they get their way. Sometimes parents unconsciously contribute to their child’s ability to be endlessly negotiating. Those children that have learned how to express their feelings and those parents who have endlessly accommodated those feelings have made for an overly demanding child. Once, while visiting a friend, she made five different lunches for her five year old daughter, because the daughter whined and complained she didn’t like the first four possibilities.
Another skill children should develop is the ability to “track” their feelings. As adults, we often know we have reactions to our feelings, and that feelings get layered. We may get embarrassed about feeling sad or angry. As children learn the language of feelings, they may begin to do this naturally. When my daughter was four, I took her with me to the grocery store. I told her she could have a cookie and we went to the bakery section. As she was looking, I said, “Oh, look! There are more cookies over here.” She paused, took a long measured breath and said, “Mom! When you give me too many choices, I get confused and when I get confused it makes me angry!” There is the beginning ability to track from one emotion to the next. For some parents this interchange would be difficult. Those that were not treated with respect as children may want to reply: “I’m getting you a cookie and you’re angry with me? Well, you can forget the cookie!” But the child—in this case my daughter—wasn’t angry at me for getting a cookie, she was angry because it was a hard decision and I wasn’t making it any easier.
Let me say something about “fixing.” Read my article on this website called “Small Losses: Helping Children Grieve.” Sometimes parents have a hard time tolerating their own feelings (a good time to do some more exploring of your own emotional map), as well as their children’s. Before you begin to “fix” a feeling, first make sure you allow your child the opportunity to express it. Say for example, that they have been invited to their first sleep-over, which got canceled because the other child is sick. It isn’t necessary to plan a trip to Disneyland just so your child doesn’t experience any disappointment. But if you take the time to listen and reflect: “Of course you’re disappointed! This was your first sleep-over and you have waited a long time for this.” Wait a little while and let them speak. You may say later on, “Well, it is difficult to wait. But I know you will get a chance to go to Tommy’s another night and sleep-over.” Learning to delay gratification is vital to your child’s development.
And while not fixing every emotional experience, there are times when it just makes sense. At the depths of my parents’ divorce, my mom, my brother and I were all very depressed, though we didn’t use that word then, and we expressed it in very different ways. My brother was angry much of the time; I retreated to friends and fought the heaviness I experienced. My mom would spend hours in her bedroom while we would knock on the door, worried. So one Saturday we all went to the movies together and saw a very funny movie. I can’t tell you how much of a reprieve it was for me. At the end of it, my mom said “Want to stay and watch it again?” It seemed so wild at the time—so “devil may care” and a little reckless and very, very fun. My mom couldn’t “fix” the divorce for us or herself, but from time to time she would do something that was out of the norm and special. So if you and your child are going through some very difficult times, be with them in their feelings, and from time to time offer some respite.
As children get older, the issues continue to get increasingly complicated. You may help them by assessing the intensity of their feelings, but when do you magnify what they are saying and when do you dismiss or distract them from the feeling? My rule of thumb is this: if your child tends to dismiss his or her feelings, then magnify. And if they tend to magnify, then dismiss—a little. Progress is measured by where you start and where you aim.
You may teach them about ambivalence—having several feelings at the same time—as well controlling impulses, and delaying gratification. It is important for children to learn the difference between having feelings and taking action. Further, we all have some experience with what I call “emotional reasoning.” Just because I feel overlooked or ignored, does not necessarily mean that I am ignored. As they grow older, you will need to help them listen and respond to others’ feelings and negotiate between their needs and another’s.
When you place an emphasis upon your child’s emotional life, you are not necessarily creating a “convenient child.” These children do not grow up to jump at your beck and call. They are often empowered and cannot be “guilted” into doing something. They often grow up to be independent thinkers. You must set limits about the expression of emotions. Because my children have grown up with this emphasis, they are versatile at expressing their feelings. But I have also insisted that they share their feelings respectfully. They can be angry, hurt, or disappointed with me, but they need to let me know without sarcasm, name-calling or mocking.
It is rewarding to witness what your child does with this ability to express their feelings and reactions. I’ve had some clients who have been able to give their children something they did not get in their own childhoods, and I’ve had the honor to see their pride in their children. You want to send your children out into the world with this ability to feel, recognize and use the emotions in their relationships and work.
Andreas, Brian. Traveling Light: Stories and Drawings for a Quiet Mind, StoryPeople, Decorah , Iowa , 2004.
Black, Claudia, Ph.D. It Will Never Happen to Me, Ballatine Books, New York , 1981.
Goleman, Daniel, Ph.D. Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books, New York , 1995.
Peters, Glenn, Ph.D. “Fostering the Emotional Development of Your Children”, www.therapyinla.com, March 2011.
Shapiro, Lawrence, Ph.D. How to Raise a Child with a High EQ, Harper Perennial, New York , 1997.
Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist. Her private practice is in Brentwood . She can be reached at (310) 472-5333.
Copyright Independent Psychotherapy Network ©2008-2011