H. Norman Wright
(Taken from the book It’s Okay to Cry)
How do you respond to your own emotion? For may parents, emotions are not only confusing, they’re also considered a problem. Many of us were raised emotionally handicapped. We weren’t given any real help with our emotional development. And what we don’t feel comfortable with, we tend to fear, avoid, or resist. Then we will want to squelch the emotions in our children.
But were you aware that children actually absorb emotions? They do. From their earliest days they sense and absorb the emotions of those around them. If you’re happy, they pick this up. If you’re sad, they do the same. And if you’re traumatized, it impacts them – and they watch how you express and process your emotions.
After absorption, the next step is imitation. When a loss hits your family and you as a parent begin to grieve, your children will take their cue from what you are doing. If your grief is healthy, so will theirs be. And if it isn’t, unfortunately, they will learn that as well.
Often we don’t know how to respond to our own feelings, let alone our children’s. And it’s easy to respond to our children’s emotions in such a way that they end up damaged. In his helpful book The Heart of Parenting, John Gottman talks about the two hurtful responses of either dismissing our children’s feelings or disapproving of them. If you’ve ever responded in these ways, don’t be alarmed or hard on yourself. It’s possible to change. It’s important to make the effort to change, though, because parents who dismiss or disapprove tend to treat their children in less than healthy ways.
Parents who dismiss their child’s emotions—by ignoring the feelings, disengaging from the child, or ridiculing the way the child feels—are actually saying something about themselves. You see, these reactions are especially likely when the child’s emotions are so-called negative ones, because parents often see these reflecting on themselves in some way. They think perhaps it could mean their child is maladjusted or weak. Some go to the extreme of believing any expression of negative emotions indicated bad character traits.
When their child does express emotions, these parents feel uncomfortable, afraid, anxious, bothered, hurt, or even overwhelmed. They’re afraid of getting out of control emotionally. Their natural response is, “Let’s get past this emotion as quickly as possible.”
But suppose they simply try to understand what the emotion means? If they don’t, they miss a wonderful learning opportunity—and the chance to do some problem solving with their child. They also miss out on the closeness, the intimacy that is formed when human beings share their deepest feelings.
If parents disapprove of the emotional expression, they are exhibiting a strong, controlling reaction. It is a critical and judgmental parental response.
Instead, when our kids share their emotions, we parents can take a positive cue: This is a teachable moment. This is the time to be empathetic, listening with our heart as well as with our head. Help your child put a name to the emotion, give guidance when needed, set limits, and teach acceptable expressions. This is one of your best opportunities to teach your child how to resolve problems.
The following is an example from Dr. Gottman that describes how to respond to a typical loss for a child: Imagine, for a moment, a situation where eight-year-old William comes in from the yard, looking dejected because the kids next door have refused to play with him. His dad, Bob, looks up from his paper just long enough to say, “Not again! Look, William, you’re a big kid now, not a baby. Don’t get upset every time somebody gives you the cold shoulder. Just forget about it. Call one of your buddies from school. Read a book, Watch a little TV.”
Because children usually believe their parents’ assessments, chances are William’s thinking: “Dad’s right. I’m acting like a baby, what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just forget it like Dad says? I’m such a wimp. Nobody wants to be my friend.”
Now imagine how William might feel if his father responds differently when he comes in. What if Dad puts down his newspaper, looks at his son, and says: “You look kind of sad, William. Tell me what’s going on.”
And if Bob listens—really listens with an open heart—perhaps William will come up with a different assessment of himself. This conversation might continue like this:
William: “Tom and Patrick won’t let me play basketball with them”
Dad: “I’ll bet that hurt your feelings.”
William: “Yeah it did. It made me mad, too.”
Dad: “I can see that.”
William: “There’s no reason why I can’t shoot baskets with them.”
Dad: “Did you talk to them about it?”
William: “Nah, I don’t want to.”
Dad: “What do you want to do?”
William: “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just blow it off.”
Dad: “You think that’s a better idea?”
William: “Yeah, ‘cuz they’ll probably change their minds tomorrow. I think I’ll call one of my friends from school, or read a book. Maybe I’ll watch some TV.”
There’s really no mystery here: As you learn to handle your own
emotions, you can guide your children in handling theirs. You will need to let your children know what is an appropriate way to express emotions and what isn’t, what they can and cannot say, and what they can and cannot do.
“You can be mad, but you can’t hit your brother.”
“You can be upset at your sister, but you can’t call her names.”
Obviously, any responses that hurt others or damage property won’t be tolerated.
In helping your children come up with a good solution, though, use questions:
“What do you think you could do?”
“What do you think might work?”
“What have you tried before? Let’s list the things that we’ve never tried before. Then you can choose one and see if it helps.”
“If you were in my place, what do you think I would suggest?”
As you develop your feelings vocabulary, the next step is to learn to answer emotion with emotion. Here are some examples of what this looks and sounds like:
“I can see that you’re hurting [or sad or scared or feeling guilty or…}.”
“It saddens me that you feel so alone at school.”
“I can see how disappointed you are that you weren’t invited to the party. I know that’s disappointing to you.”
“I know you’re really frustrated right now because you’re having trouble understanding algebra. I want you to know that I care about you and will help you in any way I can.”
“I’m committed to going through this with you.”
“Can you share with me how I’ve hurt you? How did it make you feel? I want to understand and make it right.”
Used with permission. Taken from I’ts Okay to Cry: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Children Through the Losses of Life, by H. Norman Wright (2004, Waterbrook Press).