Parenting: Don’t Shut Up Emotions

I was all ready to discuss another topic in this issue of Kids & Culture Alert! when I received the following email from a reader the other day:

“There is a huge difference between telling a child to ‘suck it up’ and do their homework, and telling them to suck it up when dealing with emotions. My son reads your advice and interprets that any time his five-year-old son whines at all he needs to suck it up.”

Of course, no parent likes to hear their children whine. It’s frustrating and just plain irritating. It’s easy to think that you have a whiny child and that you need to nip that behavior in the bud by just telling them to shut up (especially when a newsletter from a so-called parenting expert seems to advocate that approach!).

But let me be very clear, though I totally support teaching your children to ‘suck it up’ when they complain about having to do something that they would rather not, I do not by any means suggest that you should tell them to ‘shut up’ when they are expressing their emotions—even though that is what you would love to do sometimes!

The fact is that your children’s emotions are the most essential, yet most neglected, aspect of their development. Most essential because there is nothing more important to your children’s future success and happiness than the development of what I call emotional mastery. Most neglected because, despite their importance, children don’t take classes in emotions nor do they learn it from their parents in any thorough way.

Emotional Overprotection

In attempting to protect their children from feeling badly, many parents prevent them from feeling emotions at all in the mistaken belief that feeling emotions, such as anger, sadness, frustration, or pain, will somehow scar their children for life. To the contrary, not feeling so-called bad emotions hurts children in two ways. First, emotions are like two sides of the same coin; children can’t feel good emotions, such as excitement, joy, and inspiration, unless they are allowed to feel the bad emotions too. Second, without feeling bad emotions children never learn to deal with those emotions. This protection leaves children wholly unprepared for the “real world” where bad emotions are just a part of life.

Not-so-obvious Emotions

The challenge for parents, like the one referred to in the email above, is to be able to look beneath the irritation of the emotions that are most readily evident and get at the true emotions that your children are experiencing. For example, when children have a temper tantrum, anger is rarely the real emotion. It’s easy to label a child as having “anger management” issues or as “acting out,” but these are just labels assigned by parents and mental-health professionals in an attempt to simplify the incredible complexity of human beings. Anger is a defensive emotion aimed at protecting children (and adults) from more painful emotions such as fear, sadness, and humiliation. Whininess is the overt expression of children feeling frustrated, not getting their needs met, or feeling out of control (all of which, I might add, is a normal part of being a kid). When you understand the true emotions your children are feeling, you are then in a position to teach them how to become masters rather than victims of their emotions.

Parents as Emotional Masters

Your children learn their most basic emotional habits from you through observation and modeling. The development of emotional mastery is greatly facilitated when you possess the qualities that your children need to learn. The reality is though that most parents—like most people—carry with them some unhealthy emotional baggage and habits from their childhoods that, if left unchecked, will be passed on to their children. If you are an emotional victim, it is likely that, unless your children have other strong role models to influence them, they too will become emotional victims. If you are an emotional master, you have a good start on instilling positive emotional habits in them. One of the strongest recommendations I can make to you is to explore your emotional life and ensure that you are capable of teaching your children to be emotional masters.

Emotional Coaching

Emotional mastery is not about not feeling emotions or suppressing the emotions that your children feel. Instead, it involves children being able to recognize what emotion they are experiencing, understand what is causing the emotion, and being able to express the emotion in a healthy way.

You can facilitate your children’s understanding by engaging in “emotional coaching,” in which you guide your children in the exploration of their emotional worlds. Identify situations as opportunities for them to learn about their emotions, such as hurt feelings over a disappointing performance or anger over a conflict with a friend. Children can easily separate negative from positive emotions, but only with experience can they learn the differences between different negative emotions. When your children feel bad, they need to be able to distinguish whether they are, for example, fearful, angry, frustrated, sad, or hurt. Describe different ways a person might feel in that situation and compare those feelings with what they are feeling at the moment. Research has shown that emotional coaching can act as a buffer against a variety of psychological problems and children who are coached emotionally focus more effectively, are better learners, and do better in school.

Children can get so wrapped up in the negative emotions of the moment that they are unable to step back and see that their reactions are not serving them well. This is a point at which you can intervene. For example, here’s a conversation you can have with your children when they begin to lose it emotionally. Ask the following questions (and try to elicit something akin the following responses):

  • “What emotions are you feeling right now?” (“I’m frustrated and really mad.”);
  • “Are these emotions helping or hurting you?” (“They’re hurting me.”);
  • “If you continue to feel this way, will things get better or worse?” (“Worse.”);
  • “Do you want to continue down this road or do you want to turn it around?” (“I want to turn it around.”);
  • “What do you need to do to turn it around?” (“I need to take some deep breaths, and figure out the cause of my frustration.”)

With your help both as a role model and an emotional coach, your children can learn to recognize and identify their emotions. They can then search themselves and their environment for possible causes of their emotional reactions. Seeing the reasons for their feelings provides children with further information about the emotional experience and gives them greater understanding and control over what they feel. This process also encourages your children to “step back” from their emotions, which lessens their intensity and impact. It also provides your children with the opportunity to express what they feel in a healthy way that serves them best.

Be Patient

Developing emotional mastery is a life-long process that requires awareness and practice. Your power as a parent lies in your ability to send positive daily messages about emotions and look for teachable moments in which to instill emotional mastery. Each time your children make the right choice, they are making it easier to choose the next time. The great thing about emotional mastery is that it is self-rewarding. When your children make the correct choice, they not only feel better, they also do better. The ultimate goal of emotional mastery is for your children to be able to fully experience the entire spectrum of emotions, embrace the positive emotions, and resolve in a healthy way the negative emotions.