Funny how I planned to write this post tonight on kids and emotions, and coincidentally, both my kids were sad and/or crying when I picked them up at school today. Never a good sign.
I take that back. Maybe it is a good sign. Maybe part of the reason my kids were able to express their emotions today is because they know I'm a safe place to dump that stuff. I can't be certain. But I am trying to cultivate a family culture where emotions are embraced and never wrong. How one reacts to them and manages them may very well be wrong, but emotions themselves deserve respect.
You may not agree with me here. But I am of the belief that God created us - ALL of us - as emotional beings. We are meant to feel things, and our feelings are meant to be like indicator lights on a dashboard. They tell us if there is a problem. They tell us when we're out of fuel. They tell us all kinds of information about the health of a vehicle. And so the indicators themselves are never bad or wrong; they just give information. Our reactions to those signals are what can be unhealthy or inappropriate. People who are unable to feel, who have shut down their hearts due to injury, like cars with broken indicator lights, are not functioning as they were meant to. People who choose to numb their emotions are in a similar state of dysfunction; it's the same as driving a car that has all sorts of warning lights flashing and just plastering some duct tape over them.
Something else that keeps our hearts from running smoothly is shame. Many of us have shame connected with our feelings. Have you ever been told any of these?
You shouldn't feel that way.
It's ridiculous for you to feel that way.
Don't be mad.
Don't get so upset.
Don't be childish.
Suck it up.
Big girls don't cry.
Probably all of us have, at some point. We feel shame when we are told our feelings are not okay or aren't acceptable. Now here's the tricky part. In order to help our kids get an A in Emotion 101, we need to be getting an A ourselves. We need to be comfortable with our own feelings - all of them - in order to accept our children's. For some of us that is a pretty tall order. The shame gets in the way.
Lucky for you, I've become sort of an expert on shame. Can I quickly share a book that really helped me understand why God made me the way that I am? Feminine, emotional, tender? And that God patterned my emotional heart after His own? It's called Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman's Soul. It changed me. I think every woman should read it.
Once I got a grip on embracing and respecting my feelings (because I knew God did), I started trying my hardest to validate those of my kids. It's something of which I'm conscious all the time in my mothering. And respecting their feelings is not always easy, because kids don't have the maturity to express their feelings in a very clear or controlled manner, obviously. I mean, many 40 year olds can't do it. Certainly it's way more difficult for my pre-teen daughter to manage hers.
If you've not worked much with your kids' feelings, step one is giving the emotions names. Kids do not know how they feel and they need us to teach them. Even though the result is nearly always crying, you'll be really good at guessing the actual emotion that's causing the tears, especially when they're little. The main emotions we always always always come across and refer to are these:
Disappointment is a big one. Life is full of disappointments, and kids need to be able to (eventually) cope with small setbacks. The ice cream store being out of her favorite flavor, or a special blankie getting left at grandma's can send a little one into a meltdown. Calmly naming this feeling and showing empathy helps so much. They need to know it's okay for them to feel disappointed (if expressing it in an acceptable way, of course) and that we all deal with disappointment regularly.
Some people think that addressing or even recognizing a child's emotion will just cause him or her to carry on longer. Let's just admit that we are afraid of their emotions; it's understandable since kids are crazy, uncontainable, and unpredictable beings half the time. But honestly, validating their little hearts is actually what HELPS them get the emotion under control. Think about it; at least for me, when someone doesn't respect my feelings, I am only motivated to amp it up and keep expressing it. When I feel heard and understood, then I can much more quickly calm down.
These are other feelings we've dealt with and named, but less often:
In my experience, I spent a few years naming their feelings for them, and now they are old enough to not only identify them, but express them to me also. For instance, at two and three and four, my son would just cry or yell when he couldn't fit his Legos together just so. I told him, "Wow! You are really frustrated. Would you like some help?" Now, he just growls, "Ughhhh! I'm so frustrated!!" Or this past weekend, as I got on his case for not cleaning his room, he exclaimed, "I'm just really overwhelmed and you know I can't work when I'm overwhelmed!" It was cute because he's only 8. But I could completely relate; it's hard for me to be productive when I'm overwhelmed too. And I was so glad he could tell me how he felt, because I clearly needed to change my parenting course.
My daughter, on the other hand, has a very deep soul, but struggles to find the words to express herself. It's just her personality. So when I can see she's upset or having a hard time, I find a private space for us to chat and ask her to tell me two feeling words. Then I wait very patiently for her to find them. Sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes, I give her a list (choose Soul Word List, then amend for kids) from which to choose, so she can remember the names of feelings. Starting a conversation with feeling words tells her that no matter how she feels, it's acceptable, I can take it, and I'm really interested in hearing her heart.
And lastly, I share my feelings with them. I don't want to be seen simply as a chef/maid/chauffeur to my kids. I want them to understand I'm a person with feelings too. That I get hurt when someone says something mean. That I feel nervous when I'm meeting new people. That I feel jealous when a friend gets to do something I wish I could do. That I feel annoyed when someone shoots a Nerf dart at my face. I tell them these kinds of things regularly, naming my feelings, and modeling (most of the time!) self-controlled reactions.
It really touched me the other day when I announced I was going to dinner with a friend for the first time since we've been in Montana. As I was leaving, my son said, "Tomorrow I want to hear all about it!" I thought, "Wow, I'm not just a servant to him. I'm a person who may or may not have a fun time, who may have ideas and feelings to share, who is valuable to him." It was a great reminder: when you show interest in the feelings of another, they feel valuable and loved.
I hope we can help our kids feel valuable and loved this school year; they will certainly have many, many feelings about it all.