My highly esteemed partner, Natalie (that’s her, being the human pillow), wrote the article below for Mothering Magazine (before they went paperless…) and it so perfectly encapsulates the sum total of our approach to being with our kids through all of their emotions — from shivering anxiety to thundering rage to volcanic joy — as well as the kind of atmosphere we strive to create for their best possible emotional development, that I had to share it with you. My apologies to the majority of you, who will no doubt have already read it on Natalie’s blog — but you know best why I had to pass it on to the rest who haven’t seen it yet! Seriously, this is one of those articles that you print off and put on the fridge (maybe even mail it to all the grandparents), share on Facebook or Google+ or whatever, email to all of your parent-friends, bring everywhere — this is world changing parenting information… Please use it with abandon.
Building an Emotionally Safe Household
Feelings are everything. They connect us to our true selves as well as to other human beings. When we recognize our feelings and share them with others, we develop friendships, meaningful bonds, romance, community—all the things that make life worthwhile. As parents, we want to set our children up to revel in these delights. Deep down, we know that math scores aren’t what will carry our daughter through the trial of a breakup, that physical agility or prowess on the violin won’t help our son as he negotiates a conflict at work. For such challenges they will need not test scores and physical strength, but emotional integrity and skills—and we are determined that they have them.
One place to start is to acknowledge that all feelings are acceptable. This alone may not appear to be much of an obstacle—in theory, it isn’t difficult to see anger as being just as important as happiness—but in practice it’s more difficult. There are hundreds of ways in which parents unconsciously encourage some feelings in their children while discouraging others, only to find that when they really want or need their kids to open up, they’re reluctant to.
Most of us aren’t even aware of the ways in which we discourage our children from truthfully expressing themselves. Our comments, facial expressions, jokes, and reactions—all contribute to our children’s emotional environment. Although our comments and reactions may be subtle, our children take notice of them, and if they don’t feel safe in their surroundings, they may never relate their true feelings.
Here are seven ways to create an environment in which your child will feel comfortable expressing his or her feelings:
1. Let the child lead
Each person is the best judge of her own feelings, including children. It isn’t helpful to tell a child what she is experiencing.
scenario: Girl falls, scrapes knee.
mom: You’re OK! It’s just a little scrape! See? No blood—you’re OK.
Although Mom is trying to be comforting, she’s acting as if it’s she who is in charge of how the girl feels. This is untrue, can be insulting, and gently nudges the child away—not only from expressing her true feelings, but from knowing what those feelings might be.
“You’re OK!” is a common example. If you find yourself saying this or the equivalent, it’s probably because your child is not OK with the situation. If a child is upset, it’s a disservice to her to tell her that she is not upset—that she’s “OK.”
instead: Oh! You fell! Are you OK?
2. Stop prompting
Just as leading a child toward what the child is feeling can be avoided, so can prompting your child about what you think he should feel. When a child is given a present or is complimented by someone, it’s common for a parent to place himself in the background of the interaction and indicate that the child should smile (!) and be pleased. The parent uses face, hands, and body language to demonstrate the feeling “appropriate” to the occasion.
Instead, try a more neutral facial expression and wait to see how your child actually feels about this situation. The best way to illustrate that all feelings are acceptable is to allow their expression, no matter what is dictated by social norms.
That said, even if we accept a child’s emotional response to a gift, we might still want him to show appreciation. This is perfectly natural, but if a discussion about social customs is necessary, it should be kept separate from the expression of feelings. Appreciation for a gift, or concern for the gift-giver’s feelings when a gift isn’t enjoyed, will come naturally to a child who has been allowed to experience the full expression of his own feelings. This kind of concern, commonly referred to as empathy, is a natural response for children who themselves have been treated empathetically. An empathic response to an unwanted gift is one that shows appreciation, not one that quashes one’s true feelings.
If you’d like to demonstrate your own appreciation for the gift your child has received, don’t try to control his expression of his feelings in order to express your own appreciation. You can make your feelings of appreciation known to the gift-giver in your own way.
3. Quit shushing
It’s perfectly normal for humans to be upset, cry, even sob and wail. Refrain from saying “Sssshhhh, sssshhhh” to help a child feel better. Outside of attempting to provide for an infant’s physical needs, make no effort, verbal or otherwise, to persuade her to stop crying, as this may tell her that the strong feelings that have caused her to weep are unacceptable.
Instead, hold her and give her empathy: “You seem so sad about that.” If the child is too loud for the surroundings, remove her from the environment without giving the impression that this is a punishment. In addition, remain with the child so that she doesn’t feel abandoned in her grief. Give her all the time she needs to feel her sadness and let it out completely.
4. No more name-calling
Do not label your child for expressing his emotions, no matter how annoying (to you) those expressions may be, or even if you consider your names for him “harmless” or cute.
name-calling: Henry, stop being such a whiner! I told you dinner wasn’t ready yet. If you’d leave me alone instead of whining at me, I’d have it done already!
instead: Henry, I know you’re hungry. You’re frustrated that dinner is taking so long. I’m trying my hardest to hurry, but I’m pretty distracted by talking to you about when dinner will be ready. I think if you found something to do, time would pass more quickly, and I’d be able to concentrate better and get it done faster.
name-calling: You silly goose! Pants are for your legs, not your head! You’re such a silly goose.
instead: Are you making a joke? Pants usually go on your legs, not your head, right?! That’s so funny!
5. Resist lauding
Parents want their children to feel loved and encouraged, and praise is one of the ways we hope to achieve this. But praising expressions of emotion, however subtly, can have the opposite effect. If you value one sort of emotion over another, your child will quickly understand that some feelings are worthy of praise, while others should be avoided. When difficult feelings arise, children who have been earlier praised for expressing more acceptable emotional states may add concern for a parent’s potential displeasure to an already uncomfortable emotional load and not express them at all. Knowing that her parents will accept her no matter what she’s feeling is perhaps the greatest comfort a child can have.
Be careful with your wording when talking about a child’s emotional reaction:
lauding: You were so brave at the dentist today! You didn’t even cry one bit! I am so proud of you!
instead: What did you think of the dentist today? How was it for you?
lauding: Good job, honey! All those strangers were talking to you, and you weren’t shy at all. You answered all of their questions. Good for you!
instead: Wow. A lot of strangers were talking to you today. I noticed you seemed to feel comfortable answering all of their questions. Did you enjoy that?
6. Beware of judging
Watch for subtle cues you may give a child that reveal your judgment of his emotional expressions. Even if not expressed directly, criticism can be felt by those at whom it’s directed. A child can listen and watch closely, especially when he knows or suspects that he is the subject of an adult conversation. This is why it is important to maintain neutrality in your words and tone, even when discussing your child’s feelings with another parent or friend.
judging: Sorry we’re late. My son had a total meltdown over a missing sippy cup. [rolls eyes, looks exasperated] But we finally made it!
instead: Sorry we’re late. We couldn’t find a sippy cup that’s really important to my son. He was pretty upset about it, and it took us a while to sort that out. But I’m glad we made it!
Remain loyal to your child and his emotional health; don’t sacrifice him for the sake of a laugh, or as a way to apologize to someone else. Show him that his feelings are valued by presenting those feelings in an honorable manner. If you need empathy for yourself for a particularly long and difficult day or a trying moment, find or create a private opportunity in which you can describe the details, laugh, or exaggerate.
7. Express yourself
A child can learn a lot by watching the people around her, so teach her by expressing your own feelings honestly. Don’t hide or dismiss your own emotional state.
suppressing: Oh, honey, Mama’s fine. I know I was crying, but it’s nothing. Did you finish the TV show? Are you hungry?
instead: Yes, I’m crying. I feel sad. It’s not for you to worry about, honey. I’m sad, but I’m still your Mama, and I can take care of you even if I’m sad.
There’s no need to tell your child all the details of your personal life or financial situation, but by expressing your own true emotions you can model what you’d like to see from her.
When raised in an emotional environment that is consistently and conscientiously made emotionally safe, children will think nothing of not only identifying what they truly feel, but freely expressing those emotions. A household in which emotional freedom is the norm may be a wilder one —emotions are never tidy, and seldom quiet—but the benefits of such freedom are great. In the short term, children who recognize their own feelings develop empathy for others, and can make generosity, appreciation, and resolution of conflicts natural parts of their day. In the long term, emotionally healthy children have a better chance of growing into successful, fulfilled, dynamic adults who are able to negotiate all the social challenges of life. What more could a parent want for them?