We all know how nice it is to feel the warm and fuzzy emotions like glee or gratitude. But what about the more prickly ones like fear, jealousy or anger? Like it or not it’s a parent’s job to help their kids get to know, feel and understand a wide variety of emotions without avoidance or judgement. Easier said than done when those big feelings are so darn difficult to be around. So where do we start?
Are there good and bad feelings?
Consider this: There is no such thing as a “bad” feeling. While some feelings are harder to manage than others, no feeling is actually bad. In fact, feelings have a very important purpose because each one resonates with a deep rooted need that is or isn’t being satisfied at any given period of time. We are actually neurologically wired to ensure our needs are met in the world by having feelings, let me explain: If for example you lose your child in a supermarket you feel panic, that feeling tells you instantly that you need to find them, and you then make a plan to call for help. When we were babies, we needed to be fed, so we came to know about this need through the feeling of frustration, and we promptly cried until the milk arrived. If we are able to accurately identify the feeling inside, we are then one step closer to understanding what we need. We can also then decide if it’s a realistic expectation or not, and take the necessary steps to either sort it out or bear not getting that need met. In this way, feelings are the engines that drive us to have our needs met in the world. While we may not always get what we want, it’s important to identify what is being ignited in us. This kind of emotional literacy is a vital skill that our kids need to learn too.
Where do all the feelings go?
We’ve all had the experience of feeling something terrible like dread or anxiety and then telling ourselves to “just forget about it”. But unfortunately feelings which are ignored don’t just disappear… they rather hibernate or get re-routed. Sigmund Freud described feelings as being part of an economy, where nervous emotional energy is moved around and around the body and mind, but never destroyed. In this way, feelings can either be metabolised, channelled or re-routed. And unfortunately this means that ignored feelings don’t dissolve and will rather manifest in other ways like sensory difficulties, behavioural issues or general anxiety. Rest assured it is always easier to tackle a feeling when it isn’t dressed up as something else.
Model by example
The best place to learn the skills to teach your child about emotional literacy, is by getting to know yourself and the full range of emotions you yourself feel. When you are able to explore your own inner world through psychotherapy for example, you learn first hand that big feelings don’t lead to quite as much destruction as you thought they would, and then armed with this knowledge you will instinctively be able to manage your child when they experience big outbursts of their own. Often, a parent may shut down a tantrum not simply because it’s a teachable moment, but rather because on some unconscious level the parent is afraid that all their big feelings will be too overwhelming. So the tantrum and all the feelings are forced into hibernation, and left unresolved for another day. It is far better to try to find ways to hang out with the feelings and simply bear them. One way to do this when your child is having a tantrum is to practise “Time Ins” rather than “Time Outs”. Time Outs (when you send your child to the naughty corner) sends the message that big feelings are bad and no one wants to be around them. But Time In’s, when your child sits in your lap while they cry and moan, communicates that (even if they can’t get what they want) their feelings about not having their needs met is manageable and important. In other words, while the tantrum behaviour isn’t ok, the feeling behind it is totally legitimate. It’s a fine, but important line.
The bottom line
Big feelings matter and as parents we need to do the difficult work of exploring our own emotions and surviving them ourselves, so that we can then instinctively help our kids metabolise their own big feelings. While this may feel daunting, listening to yourself daily and figuring out how and why you feel the way you do, will have an incredible ripple effect throughout your family and help your kids manage their very big feelings in the most ordinary of ways.