What is one of the most influential values of responsive parenting?
Allow your child to express their emotions freely.
What is another cornerstone of responsive parenting?
Modelling has a far greater effect than teaching.
So then why do we suddenly believe that our painful feelings need to be hidden? That our children shouldn’t see us cry, or be frustrated, is a misconception, often believed in peaceful parenting homes. I believe we need to allow our emotions to flow through us, the same way we want our children to feel free to process their painful emotions. If you process your emotions in a healthy way, and you are thoughtful about the way you communicate your feelings, being careful not to blame, and focusing on your own experience, this can be a positive learning experience for your child. Seeing someone we care about and look up to, being vulnerable, only deepens our connection with that person; as intuitively, we all know it takes far more strength and resilience to be vulnerable, than it does to be emotionally unavailable and guarded.
Protecting from the past
When you grow up in a home filled with unhappiness and fear, your instinct may be to protect your child from the things that hurt you when you were little. Some parents try to create a utopian universe, where they try to never let their children see them feeling any painful emotions. But when our children only see us happy, the centre of their world, they can be lead to believe that other emotions are abnormal and not acceptable. It can especially cause them to feel like they need to hide their difficult emotions from us, if it seems like we never feel the same way. They may see feelings such as anger, frustration and disappointment as shameful and a sign of weakness. When really they are just emotions that we all experience at times. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is our authentic selves.
We may also send the message that challenging feelings are to be feared and avoided. All the mental health advocates are currently screaming DON’T AVOID YOUR FEELINGS. Recognize them, feel them, talk about them or process them in whatever way makes you feel as though you have completely gone through that feeling and you are now on the other side of it. Then model that process for your child.
Children already know
The other issue is, children already know something is upsetting you. They know when you are sad, angry, frustrated… They are incredibly intuitive, although they often do not have the language to describe their sensations and feelings. Children do tend to sense more emotional energy than adults do (probably because we have conditioned our minds to ignore the suffering of the world). If we don’t discuss our feelings with them, they are often left worrying and wondering what is going on. As the nature of attachment goes, children tend to internalize these fears, and assume you are upset with them.
Talking About Your Own Emotions with Your Child
The key to expressing your emotions in a way that provides learning, and not a sense of insecurity, is making sure you express them in a healthy way. Crying, talking, writing are all healthy ways of expressing our emotions. Yelling, breaking things, making threats, blaming others are all not so helpful ways of expressing our emotions. Because of our own emotional baggage and conditioning, often our first instinct is to go there. Obviously every situation is different but here are some examples of things to say in emotionally charged situations:
“I know you see me crying a lot. I need you to know that I am sad because my Dad died tonight and I am going to miss him very much.”
“I know I seem very frustrated right now. I am feeling overwhelmed because I cannot find some very important papers. I am sorry if I seem frustrated with you, I’m not.”
“Me and Daddy are feeling angry right now because we do not agree about something. We are talking and trying to work it out but sometimes that can be hard. We will figure it out soon.”
“I know what I just said about that lady wasn’t kind, I should not have said it. I was feeling jealous because I really like her purse. Sometimes I do that when I am feeling like I want something someone else has. It’s not a kind thing to do, and it doesn’t make me feel any better, so I am trying hard not to do it anymore, but I guess I made a mistake today.”
When the child is related to the trigger
Many times the real struggle is that the child is related to the trigger somehow, and in the moment, it can be a challenge to express your feelings, without blaming the child. I think this is one of the hardest things, expressing how you feel without inducing shame and guilt, while in the middle of a meltdown. I must confess, I often say the wrong thing. I also think we worry so much about saying the wrong thing, we end up not explaining and trying to stuff down and pacify our emotions and our child’s. It’s a protective strategy that our society has valued and trained people to do for centuries so don’t fault yourself for that. Here are a few examples of how to explain your feelings, by being honest but also trying to avoid blaming the child:
I have tried digging into what’s going on inside of me when I get triggered and yell. Usually it is not a result of my child having a meltdown, I am triggered by being ignored and unheard. I also get frustrated with my partner about this too. If someone is in visible emotional pain, I feel empathy for that person and am not triggered. But if they ignore me, that feeling of being unheard, misunderstood, ignored, it fills me with panic, which often leads to irritability. This is what I would say for that scenario:
“I am feeling unheard right now and it is making me frustrated.”
Often when our children are having a meltdown, we can become overwhelmed with feelings of frustration. Many people are filled with thoughts of “I would never get away with this as a child.” No, you would not have, and was that a positive experience for you? Likely no; you have made the choice to do things differently because this feels right to you. Try not to let doubt creep in when you are both overwhelmed with emotions. Parenting is full of moments where you wonder if you are dong the right thing and then your child blows your mind with empathy and kindness, validating your parenting choices. During a meltdown is usually not the moment when pride and validation fills any parent. It is usually after when you realize you handled it with grace and calmness, and if you didn’t , that’s ok, we’re all only human, including the big people. If your child’s meltdowns are your trigger, here’s an idea of something to say:
“I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now. I really want to help you but I am not sure how. Can we work together?”
If your child is more mad than sad:
“We all have the same types of feelings, and sometimes when you are very angry, it makes me feel angry too. It reminds me of all the times I was angry when I was little and how misunderstood I felt.”
This is how we handle things in our home. We try to be very open and honest, as kids know when things are going on. If we hide it, they just feel more insecure, and their world feels more uncertain. Modelling emotional intelligence can only benefit your child, your family and society as a whole. So please, be vulnerable, let your child see you be vulnerable, they will become aware of their own strength, through the modelling of your bravery.
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