My dad was a highly sensitive and an emotional and loving person. He loved us to the point that it caused him physical pain. I knew this because he told me. He struggled his whole life to deal with his own overly strong emotions, and therefore was unable to deal with our emotions as kids because it was an overload for him. His childhood was not the most emotionally healthy situation, with a chronically depressed mom with 6 kids and an alcoholic father. As a result, he didn’t learn how to process his emotions. I know that now but as a kid I was unsure why it was so difficult for him to help us when it came to our emotional life.
I remember when I was a kid, and I would be struggling with feeling bad about a kid making fun of me, or having to make new friends, or just feeling really shy at school, and I would go to my dad to talk to him about it. He would pretty much shut down and not know how to respond. All he could say was, “It hurts me to see you pain. I wish I could take your pain away so you could feel better.” And while this was a sweet sentiment, and he meant no harm by it, I was left with a feeling of confusion and no tools to help me through the tough time. I just felt like I was hurting him with my problems and feelings, so instead, I decided not to tell him how I felt to prevent causing him pain. He loved me fiercely and did his best with me, however, and I think about him now with love and fondness.
Also, I got the message growing up from many adults that feeling scared and sad meant I was “weak” and needed to “toughen up”. As a result, I had thoughts that made me believe it was not ok to have a negative emotion, which translated into a lifetime of emotional avoidance and resistance for me. This doesn’t always have to be the case. In fact, there are some ways parents can help their child learn to process emotions in a healthy way.
My hope is that parents can use these tactics to help their kids deal with negative emotions, so that they grow up to be emotional adults, who take responsibility for their feelings and aren’t afraid to have a negative emotion.
Obviously, we all love our kids and so it hurts us when they are feeling bad.
But the real truth is we just want them to feel better so we can feel better.
As I mentioned in other posts, it’s important to recognize that we do not need our kids to be happy in order for us to feel happy. It is our thoughts about our children that cause us to feel happy or not, and we are in charge of our thoughts and feelings. It’s not our job to make our children happy, nor is it their job to make us happy. The thought work we do in life coaching enables us to be the most effective parents we can be.
Make sure to coach yourself through some of your thoughts about your child having negative emotions first by either reading my post here or setting up a free 20 minute mini session with me to help coach you through it.
Negative emotions are normal. In fact we experience them about 50% of our lives. As humans, we are made to feel all types of emotions, and most of them useful and have helped our species to survive. Our job then is to teach our children that it’s okay to have a negative emotion and not to talk them out of having the feeling. If we constantly tell them to stop crying, or to shape up, or say “it’s ok”, etc. they will think it’s unacceptable to have a negative emotion and may start to resist or avoid emotions. When we resist emotions, it can increase them, and make them actually worse.
So what do we do when our kids are upset?
- We can let them know that it’s ok to feel whatever they are feeling. The way we do this is to reassure them that it is normal to feel this way and we all have these feelings. DO NOT TALK THEM OUT OF FEELING THE EMOTION.
- We can then help them LABEL their emotion while they are feeling them. Say, “Are you angry right now? Be angry, it’s ok. You’re angry.” Repeating the emotion word helps to bring them to a logical place and move through the emotion without reacting to it. If they are old enough, you can ask them what emotion they are feeling. If they are little, you can suggest an emotion for them. If they are acting out this emotion inappropriately, like screaming, kicking, hitting, give them the option of going to another place until they have calmed down a bit first, and then move onto step 3.
- Next, ask them where they feel the emotion in their body, and give them examples. Help them to lean into the emotion. Is it hot or cold? Slow or fast? What color is it? This will help them process the emotion.
- Then, if they are old enough to understand, you can explain to them what an emotion is. An emotion is just a vibration in our body caused by our thoughts. We as humans are meant to feel all emotions, and we can handle them.
- For more advanced work, we can then guide them through what thoughts they are having that might be causing the feeling, and help them decide whether or not those thought are useful.
As an example, my daughter woke up one morning super angry and was yelling and pulling her hair, and was just a mess. She was saying things like, “I can’t stop being angry! I’m just so angry and I don’t want to be angry anymore!” I helped her to calm down a bit and stop yelling by telling her, “It’s ok to be angry. Just be angry. You’re angry, it’s ok.” We sat on her bed and I just held her, and then when she seemed more receptive, I continued helping her process the anger. I asked her where she was feeling the emotion, and she said “I don’t know.” So I asked her how her stomach felt and her head and her fists. “Do you feel it in any of those places?” She said she felt it in her head and fists. I told her to imagine what the anger looked and felt like in her head and fists. What color was it? Did it feel hot or cold? Was it moving slow or fast? What does it make you want to do? She didn’t have all the answers for these questions, and that was ok, so I made suggestions along the way. I expressed to her again that feeling anger is normal, and she could handle feeling it. It wouldn’t hurt her. And as we were doing this, she was able to move through the anger, and was calm in about 5 minutes.
We are what we practice, so the more you can allow for your children to process emotion with your help, the more it will become habit for them to not resist or be afraid of negative emotions. Processing emotions diminishes the time your children will feel bad, and reduces the possibility of the emotion compounding on itself and turning into anxiety or depression, or coming up again stronger for them later on.
It might be hard in the moment for us as parents to not react to our children’s emotions by talking them out of it or telling to stop feeling that way, but it is a valuable practice to try.
Coach yourself first through all the barriers you may have to helping them process negative emotions, and be kind to yourself when you don’t do it or when it doesn’t work perfectly, but just know that teaching your kids how to process their emotions is a hugely valuable gift that they will use for the rest of their lives.
This post was influenced by the ideas of the life coach Jody Moore.