As a society, we’re becoming much better at recognising the importance of our emotions. We encourage men to express themselves more. We don’t view emotions as a female-only phenomenon and we can intellectually understand the benefits of crying.
Likewise, with our children, we recognise that it’s helpful for them to express their feelings.
But we often limit this to words and talking about emotions.
When a child is upset, they are often told to “Use your words” rather than cry or tantrum.
Parents often talk to their children about how they’re feeling and there are many books now on this.
Which is great and is progress.
But there is the next step.
And that is to actually express those feelings.
It’s not enough to only talk about emotions. it’s not enough to say I’m angry or I’m sad.
Just like it’s not enough when you’re happy to simply sit there calmly, without a smile, and say “I’m really happy”. It doesn’t work does it? If you’re happy you’re smiling, quick to laugh and generally respond really well to a range of situations and challenges. it’s not an intellectual thing. It’s a physical thing. You feel it throughout your body and it is reflected in how you behave.
So the same applies to feeling upset or angry.
It’s not enough to simply say “I’m sad”. When you’re sad, life feels hard. Your posture is different, you’re downcast. Tears may spring into your eyes easily. Simply saying “i’m sad” doesn’t convey the depth of feeling.
Likewise when you’re angry. You can’t say that & mean it with a smile on your face. The 2 are incompatible. When you’re angry, you feel it throughout your body. You may want to punch something, shout at someone, stamp your feet, jump up & down with rage, DO something. There’s a wild energy coursing through your body. So, again, simply saying “i’m angry” doesn’t cut it.
So let’s look at our children.
This applies even more so with our children, because they’re much more in touch with their emotions. They haven’t had as much influence or time to disconnect from their feelings. They’re much more in their body rather than their head.
So they are much more expressive.
And that is a great thing!
Sure it’s not good to hit someone when they’re angry. So helping your child to express their anger is not the same as condoning aggressive behaviour towards others.
Instead it’s recognising what your child needs in those moments to help them with their emotions.
And that is not to intellectually engage them. It’s not to talk them out of their feelings. It’s not to tell them off for hitting or throwing. Your child knows not to hit or throw. They know it’s not a kind or helpful thing to do. But they still do it.
Because their rational part of their brain has gone offline. the part that’s involved with impulse control, language, forward thinking, isn’t working well. Because their emotional part of the brain is flooded with stress.
So your child needs help with their emotions, which means connecting with their emotional part of the brain – the limbic system. This isn’t done solely through words. But by helping them to express their emotions.
Because emotions are meant to be felt. They need to be expressed. And the best way to help, is to offer connection to your upset child.
Your child needs to tantrum, to cry, to be offered a pillow to bash. To be offered warmth & love rather than disconnection and discipline.
Your child may need to laugh – depending on what state they’re in. Laughter is a fantastic stress release, but be careful not to use it as a distraction if your child is in the midst of a cry or a rage.
What happens when your child fully & freely expresses themselves with you is that they move through the feelings. They come out the other side – lighter, clearer, happier & calmer. They release those upset emotions. They no longer carry them around with them in their ‘emotional backpack’.
Which means they become less triggered they’ll by the small stuff. they’ll be less reactive & more they’ll be able to hold onto things until they get home and be in their safe space with you.
So the more you help your child with their feelings at home – the more you play with them to help them laugh, the more you sit with them whilst they cry, the better.
But when you ask your child to stop the crying or raging and instead simply talk about their feelings, you’re forcing them to come out of their emotional part of the brain into the logical part of the brain. Which means the emotions remain stuck in there – unexpressed.
Those emotions get stuck, pushed back down and they stay there, festering & building up over time. And they find ways to leak out. Through whining, aggressive behaviour, resistance to go to sleep, getting upset over tiny inconsequential things, refusing to cooperate, difficulty to learn, anxieties, etc, etc.
You & your child can intellectually come up with all of the strategies in the world, but if your child is overcome with upset feelings, they’re not going to remember them in the heat of the moment. Simply because that part of the brain that thinks of consequences and is responsible for impulse control & short term memory, isn’t working well. Which is why rewards charts don’t work in those moments too.
Think about it – when was the last time you lost your cool? I shouted at my family on the weekend. I know it’s not a good thing to do. I know it’s damaging for my kids and my relationship. I know it’s not kind. But I still did it. I was overcome with stress, frustration, a sense of injustice and anger that led me to boil up & shout. Do i want to do it again? No. Will I do it again? Yes, at some point. Can I reduce my chances of doing it again – absolutely (and I’m going to share with you how to best do that in another episode). But my point here is that you can know something intellectually, and do the complete opposite of what you want to do, in the heat of the moment. Same for your child.
It’s not reasonable for us to expect our children to be angry and to not express themselves in some way. It’s not reasonable for our children to calmly say why they’re upset.
We, as the adults need to help them.
Your children need to cry, to rage, to laugh. And they need you by their side whilst they do it.
You wouldn’t expect a super excited child to just sit there calmly saying “i’m excited, I’m so excited”. No – they feel that in their body! They express it through their body. Jump for joy!
So, the next time your child is upset, be with them whilst they cry. Don’t distract them or ask them to explain why. Let them FEEL the upset and they WILL come out the other side. Then they may tell you why they’re upset. Or they may not. That doesn’t matter. What matters is you being with them whilst they offload their upset.
Likewise when your child is next angry. Connect with them through the anger. It could be playful such as a pillow fight or wrestling game, or it could be stepping in with a loving limit, and then staying with them whilst they are angry.
You don’t need to say “it’s OK to cry” or “It’s OK to be angry”, just like you don’t say “it’s OK to laugh” because your child will know that by the experiences you’ve given them.
So all of this might now sound great intellectually. You might now be more open to listening to your child’s upset feelings.
But it’s hard to do so. Especially when you have your own unexpressed upset feelings.
So I want you to know that I know how hard it can be. And I want you to get the support you need to be able to do this. You might feel comfortable starting off journalling about your feelings. You might want to call a friend or talk with your partner. Or you may have a counsellor, or you may want to book in a session with me. Whatever you do, it’s important that you express your own feelings of anger, frustration, sadness, grief, etc. You need to cry and vent whilst someone listens to you. Otherwise you’re not going to be able to do it for your children.
So reach out. Seek the support you need. Know that your emotions are totally valid. That you deserve to be heard. You’re not weak, crazy or unable to cope. You just need to release the upset feelings that are stuck inside of you. Because the more you do this, the less you’ll shout or get cross or lose your patience and the more you’ll be able to cope with life’s inevitable challenges, the more you’ll be able to play with your kids and listen to their upset feelings. Life becomes much, much easier.
Ok – hope that’s helpful this week.
Remember – emotions need to be expressed. Your child needs you with them whilst they express them. The more they do that, they better they’ll behave and cope with situations. The more you express yours, the better you’ll feel and be able to deal with the full on life of being an adult, a parent, a partner, etc, etc and living your life to the full.
Have a great week and when notice when your child is getting upset, move in close & allow those feelings to flow. And call a friend or someone who you can fully express yourself too. Enjoy!