Thursday, March 8, 2012

Negative emotions

The other day I read How to Talk So That Kids Will Listen and Listen So That Kids Will Talk. It sounded great and I'd definitely recommend it -- with the caveat that I haven't tested it because it's intended for fully verbal, rational children and I don't have any of those. It sounds like it would work, though, because it's based on, "Well, how would you like to be treated?" And that's always a good place to start.

The part that I found the most important was the part on accepting your children's negative emotions. This is hard for all of us, at every stage, I think. We don't want our children to be unhappy. In fact, we don't want anyone we like to be unhappy. So we try to "fix" our children's bad feelings. But the message we're sending is, "Your feelings are invalid/unreasonable/not worth sympathy."

I mean, think how you would feel if you were upset and heard the following things:
*"Aren't you too old to be crying about that?" Would you feel better, or would you feel upset PLUS ashamed?
*"It's not a big deal, you will get over it." Would you feel better, or would you feel upset PLUS angry that they don't think you have a reason for being upset?
*"If you don't stop crying, I'll give you something to cry about." Would you feel better, or would you feel upset PLUS afraid that you will be punished?

It's my opinion that there's no shortcut to bad feelings. I was told growing up that how you feel is a choice, and if you choose to feel happy, you will. I've tried that approach pretty thoroughly, and it never worked for me. It's true, with knowledge and practice you can manage your emotions fairly well. You can keep them from festering and having little sadness kittens inside you. But if you have something to be upset about, you're darn well going to feel upset for awhile before you feel better. That's life.

If we spend all our lives hearing, "Your negative emotions are unwelcome here, you will only be loved and accepted when you are happy," we're going to try to get a shortcut out of those feelings, but we're going to fail. Among adults that I know, we all sometimes deal with bad feelings in a dysfunctional way. Some of us playact at being happy, which works really well. Looking happy is just the same as being happy! Until suddenly we either blow up for what looks like no reason, or we spiral into depression. The negative feelings get worse, because we're not just not expressing them. We're adding to them with more and more baggage. We feel guilty for feeling that way, angry that we aren't free to express those feelings, afraid that people will despise us if they find out. Instead of letting the bad feeling just be what it is -- a transitory feeling of regret, hurt, or sadness -- we allow it to transform into aggression, self-loathing, or despondency.

My personal dysfunction is to "make nice" and pretend to be happy. I can do it for quite awhile if I put my mind to it. But inside I'm getting angrier and angrier that I "have" to do this, until one day I jump down someone's throat (usually my longsuffering husband's) and scream at them that I've been miserable for ages and it is ALL THEIR FAULT. Which it usually isn't.

(If you do any of these things, by the way, you might want to try reading the book Feeling Good. It's billed as a book for helping treat depression, but even those of us who don't suffer from depression are often in need of some new tricks to help deal with our negative emotions. I found it really helpful, even though I haven't suffered from depression since high school.)

Back to children. When they're babies, we do everything to stop them from crying. That's natural -- if they're crying, something is wrong and they have a need which isn't being fulfilled. But as they get older, sometimes they cry because they have a want that isn't being fulfilled. Sometimes that want can't be fulfilled. We try to cure our children's crying or grouchiness by saying, "It's okay. It's not a big deal. Stop crying." Or even, "For shame, a big girl like you crying!" We're in the habit of thinking, "Crying = bad."

But isn't it better to realize that crying (or crabbiness) is the natural result of being a small person in a world that doesn't always go their way, and being disappointed or hurt or just feeling mysteriously grouchy? It's not a bad thing any more than a fever is a bad thing. It's a symptom, and if we know the disease (not getting a cookie, or having to come inside from playing, or not getting to go to the library today) isn't deadly, we don't actually have to DO anything about it. We don't need to fix it.

It does help to understand and sympathize. It can help to "put a name to the feeling" like the book suggests. Kids don't always know what that feeling is called, and it can make them feel better to hear, "Oh, you sound frustrated," or, "Gee, you must be disappointed." It can also help, if the child is willing, to show them some of our own (healthy) coping techniques: drawing a picture, taking some quiet time, talking through how they feel, making a plan for how to fix the original disappointment, and so forth. These things are all worth doing. But the really important thing to take away is that a child crying or complaining or feeling sad is not a child who is broken and in need of fixing. They don't deserve to be shunned, scolded, or punished. It's just a feeling. We all have them.

Incidentally, this helps with grown-ups too. I can't tell you how much it helps to change from saying, "Well, it's not a huge deal. It will get better soon. I'm sure things will turn out for the best," to, "Boy, that is upsetting. I'd be disappointed too. You must be really worried." The first set of statements leads to responses like, "You don't understand. This IS a big deal to me. You just don't care how I feel," and the second gets responses like, "Yeah, I am upset. I'm going to do X, Y, and Z to make things better." And regardless of whether I am actually being any help or comfort, the person usually at least feels gratified to hear that I think their feelings are reasonable.

At any rate, this book was a good reminder to me to treat my son's emotions -- positive and negative alike -- with respect and understanding. It's such a strong temptation to try always to fix, advise, and chastise kids who are upset, but sometimes the best thing we can do is to listen.

1 comment:

Ibid said...

I read some of a similar book entitled How To Talk So Kids Can Learn. Good stuff!

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