Last week we wrote about the important role that adults play in helping children to be OK with feelings. We have a few more things to say about this, befitting the huge impact emotions have on our lives. It feels like a fools errand to talk about a subject so complex as emotions in a short blog post. The impact of emotions on our experience of life is huge. The great majority of psychological disorders that can be diagnosed today have at their root problems with emotional regulation. But everyone has emotions and you don’t have to have a disorder to be affected. And what are we talking about anyways? Emotions and their effect might be connected to the experience of a family escaping a war zone (who feel anxiety, vulnerability, dread, fear …), or celebrating a wedding (… joy, happiness, delight, hope) or saying goodbye to a beloved grandparent (… sorrow, grief, loneliness).
We can’t make simple assumptions about what emotions run hot in your home, but we can say, simply, that big emotions have big effects: those who study stress tell us that we are equally stressed by weddings and divorces. And as we said last week, children can be pretty taxed by even simple emotions, though we can expect that situations that make us emotional can have a greater effect on them. Hopefully the balance of situations a child faces will be positive! Even then, don’t think positive emotions only add up to peace and serenity.
We remember the day that our daughter first laughed. She was so young that she was barely able to role over on the bed. We tickled her with a blue and white plaid stuffed bear from France (that we called Trés Bear). She began to giggle uncontrollably, and we laughed along with her. It was perfectly cute … until she started crying. It had become too stressful on her little body, and she didn’t know if this new feeling would ever end! She got tired and, we guess, afraid. So we stopped, of course, and tried to meet her in this new emotion, offering some comfort. We said last week that adults play a great role in helping children come to accept and understand that their emotions are a part of their life.
But what to do if an adult can’t regulate their own emotions? What if we had no one to meet us and to help us with our emotions when we were young? If we never learned to be comfortable in our own emotional skins, then the raw and unbridled emotions of our little ones are likely to be a bit of a threat to us. But anybody reading this would agree that we want better for our kids than we got, and that we don’t want to pass on the wrong kinds of lessons. What’s an adult with emotional troubles to do?
Emotional regulation is a great problem for adults who did not feel safe being emotional when young. It is hard to replicate the great classroom of a loving family, but if we grew into adulthood without that advantage, we are not doomed to constant troubled feelings. The truth is that we need the same help that our young ones need, only we might be our own first line of defense. Can we acknowledge that we feel, sometimes quite strongly? Can we tell ourselves that emotions are OK? One of the things that we offer a child is to name the emotion they feel, and we also name the cause of it; “you were scared by that big dog!” But we adults are a bit more complicated: our emotions are somewhat more loaded because we have longer histories of emotional trauma, memories that get stirred up when we face stressful situations today. This means that we may find it hard to understand why we feel huge emotions in a situation … are the emotions linked exclusively to the present moment? If so, we can reassure ourselves that our feelings match the situation. If our fear is greater than the current situation warrants, we may not understand why.
For the adult with big emotions, who struggles to understand their feelings, or who is not comfortable in their own emotional skin, it can be a great help to seek out someone to do for us what our parents might not have been able to. To help us name the things we feel, to help us understand the complex origins of our big emotions, to help us be OK with our feelings. By the time we reach adulthood, we don’t like to be treated like children. But, really, most of us could use a little loving care now and then. We may have a friend who can help us talk through our responses to the stressors in our lives. We may seek the help of professionals. The point we are trying to make is that it isn’t only children who need to understand that feelings are OK.
Image by Flickr user marvelousRoland
[Post first appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]