“Emotional intelligence begins to develop in the earliest years. All the small exchanges children have with their parents, teachers, and with each other carry emotional messages.” ~Daniel Goleman
I consider myself an expert on the emotional needs of children. Mostly because I was one.
No one goes into parenthood anticipating the ways they will psychologically damage their children. At least I don't think they do. I hope not. It's far more likely that most go into parenthood wanting the best for their children, hoping to do more for them than their own parents were able to do.
So, why is it that so many come out of childhood scathed in some way? My parents fed me and sheltered me. I learned how to take care of myself physically and to manage the tasks of adulthood. I was responsible and productive. Yet, I was far from happy and fulfilled.
I did not come out of childhood feeling good about myself. I had no idea how to identify how I was feeling, let alone express it in ways that were not destructive in some way. I did not learn what a healthy relationship looked like, with myself or others.
Technologically and economically speaking, we have made tremendous strides in the last 100 years. It is actually pretty phenomenal if you take a minute to look at history.
World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam Wars took up resources and energy in the early to mid part of the 20th century, and everyone had to step up and out of their comfort zones to keep things going, within the family and within our country. There was tremendous change on a national level.
The earlier part of those 100 years were often about survival for families. Putting food on the table and a roof over their heads was a priority. Everyone doing their part in managing household responsibilities was paramount. Disposable income and disposable time were luxuries.
For the most part, that has all changed.
Huge technological and economical advancement only left psychological and emotional growth lagging sorely behind.
Does anyone find it strange that we spend twelve years or more in an education system, which is supposed to prepare us for life, but no one teaches us how to navigate our own emotional world?
We take classes for everything from learning to draw to playing an instrument to getting a medical degree or becoming an accountant to learning karate and gymnastics or learning to cook, yet we get little to no education on our psychological and emotional health.
We are completely caught up in and focused on our physical health, unaware that our emotional health or lack thereof plays out in our bodies every minute of every day. Why does mental health have a stigma and physical health does not? They are completely intertwined.
If we were healthier emotionally, we would be healthier physically.
I think most of us would agree that the world often looks like it is going crazy. People are dumping their pain all over others, rarely being accountable for themselves or recognizing there is another alternative. I know. I've been there. I've been dumped on and I've been the dumper.
All you have to do is turn on the television or look at a video game or watch the news—murder, mayhem and politics, addiction, domestic violence, divorce and child abuse, bullying by parents at their children's sporting events, and adults having sexual relationships with children—to know that adults are still trying to figure out how to navigate their own feelings and emotions.
How then are we to teach our children how to be emotionally healthy when we live in a world that is so emotionally unhealthy?
Emotionally healthy people do not need to oppress others. Emotionally healthy people do not hate others for their differences. They are more likely to see their similarities. Emotionally healthy people never think they are better than anyone else, for any reason.
Emotionally healthy people know how to express themselves in life-giving ways, and are rarely in abusive relationships or having affairs. They aren't lying, cheating, or abusing drugs or people. They are generally happy people.
Becoming an emotionally healthy person is an ongoing journey and needs at least as much, if not more, attention as we give to our physical health.
Reproduction often gets less thought and planning than a vacation. Raising children to be healthy, happy, productive, and loving adults becomes on-the-job-training at its worst, since mistakes can be life altering.
So how do we help our children become the happy, healthy, productive, and loving adults most parents want them to be?
First, Stop Denying Your Feelings
We are born open and perceptive. Kids pick up on all kinds of things that adults seem to miss. Most kids are naturally intuitive and inquisitive. Their environment will either nurture that experience or hinder it.
What kids need is someone helping them to identify and articulate what they are experiencing. Feelings and emotions have a purpose. They communicate information to us that is necessary for the successful navigation of life. Unfortunately, there is often little tolerance of them, unless they are happy and joyful.
If we aren't being truthful about our own feelings and emotions, how can we teach our children to be truthful about theirs? The feelings we have are not the problem, what we do with them might be.
Parents often erroneously think they have to protect their children from their own emotions and feelings. It goes something like this:
You, the parent, are feeling sad. Your child says, “Are you sad, Mommy/Daddy?” Mommy/Daddy says, “No, honey, Mommy's/Daddy's not sad….”
Your child is now confused. S/he knew what sad looked like and felt like, but they are now doubting themselves, because of course, they trust you know better. They also take in an unspoken message that says, “We don't talk about our painful feelings and/or some feelings are not okay to express.”
Acknowledging when your kids are right will nurture your child's natural intuitiveness and emotional intelligence. That will go a long way in contributing to their mental health, like exercise for the body contributes to physical health.
I am not suggesting we dump our feelings on our kids (like we more often do with anger). I am suggesting we be more honest about our feelings. Reassuring them that we can handle our own feelings will relieve them of responsibility for how we feel, as well as communicate that they, too, can have and learn to tolerate their more difficult feelings.
They will learn from what we do.
If we blame our children for how we feel (“You make me angry” versus “I feel angry when you…”), we will leave them with a lifetime of taking on responsibility for the feelings of others, while also learning to hold others responsible for how they feel. That has contributed to a large population of narcissistic people blaming everyone else for how they feel, unable to have any accountability.
When that happens, we give the power we have to make ourselves happy away to those who can't.
It's okay to express our feelings to our children in age appropriate ways. It is also okay to ask them how they handle things when they feel sad or angry or scared.
It is important to normalize all feelings, without giving free reign for how they are expressed.
Second, Stop Judging Feelings as Good or Bad
Have you ever had anyone tell you, “You shouldn't feel that way”? Or have you ever told yourself that? I don't know about you, but I don't usually choose my feelings. They seem to choose me.
If we accept how we feel, no matter how horrible it might seem, we can begin to learn from and transform those feelings.
Then, of course, we can stop judging our children's feelings. This will allow them to bring their own feelings into the light, without shame. Only then can they learn from and transform their own feelings. Only then can those feelings move on.
What is not expressed and articulated will be acted out.
We see this in the schools every day. We see this on the news every day.
We need to stop judging the way our kids feel. All feelings are a part of the human experience.
Telling them “that isn't nice” doesn't resolve the issue. Asking them why they feel that way and allowing them to express their feelings does. They need our guidance and perspective to help them acknowledge and understand their feelings.
I usually felt like the outsider as a kid. I did not know how to “fit in.” I took in a message that the way I was or who I was, was not acceptable. So I felt bad about myself.
When I could finally acknowledge how I felt and express it in a safe and open environment, those feelings began to change. Not because the environment changed, but rather because my perspective on it did. My perspective on myself changed within the context of a helping relationship.
Parents are the first helping relationship.
We all have feelings and thoughts of which we are ashamed. This is normal. Judging feelings as bad, all the while pushing them down, will give them permission to control us.
Facing them honestly gives us the control.
And don't we all want our children to be able to manage their feelings and express them appropriately? Wouldn't we all be happier?
Third, Avoid Telling Your Kids What You Think They Should Think
If you want to know what is going on in your kids’ heads, you have to ask questions. Get curious—curious about how they view what is going on in their school or in the world or in your home.
When you don't push your own views onto your children, but rather listen to them with interest and unconditional acceptance, they will learn to accept themselves and see their own views as valuable.
You will also be better able to head off crisis and give the guidance you think is needed if you actually know what or how they are thinking. Parents are always the involved guides and coaches that move between being an overseer to taking a more active role, depending on the age and needs of the child.
Remember, they are not you, nor are they an extension of you. They are their own person, with their own thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and ideas. Be curious about who your kids are. Notice their strengths. Nurture them.
Be aware of their weaknesses and work with them patiently. We all have them.
I remember having a conversation with my parents as an adult. I was raised with fear, as the means of keeping us children in line. My parents had no idea I was drinking in high school, let alone how often I drove home in blackouts. I have felt very fortunate I did not kill myself or someone else.
Kids will not tell you what they are thinking or feeling unless you create an environment in which they feel safe enough to do so. That means being able to tolerate the things that might make you uncomfortable.
Dropping the gauntlet won't necessarily stop the unwanted behavior. Understanding why the behavior exists and what is not being expressed just might.
Fourth, and Most importantly, How Are You Dealing With Your Own Feelings?
If we have not resolved our own emotional issues or have little understanding of their very existence, then we will be unable to assist our children manage theirs.
None of us will have things completely resolved, since that is what life seems to be all about. It is the journey.
But if we are afraid of our own feelings and emotions, then we will avoid those of our children. It's never easy to watch children suffer. Yet we can't get through life without it happening. The better prepared we are to deal with our own feelings, the better we will deal with theirs.
The better we can navigate our own emotional world, the better we will help our child navigate theirs.
It’s not about being perfect. It’s about showing up and being able to go there.
It can be helpful to look back on your own childhood to gain understanding into how you learned or did not learn to deal with your feelings and emotions. It will have everything to do with how you raise your own kids.
What was acceptable and what was not? How did your family of origin process feelings?
There is no shame in it. It is never too late to go back and heal what we helped to break. Acknowledging our own inadequacies can be freeing. We live in a culture that demands perfection, where perfection does not exist.
We do not know, what we do not know. There is always room to learn. Haven't your children been the greatest teacher? Don't they challenge you beyond what you think you can do?
Don't they deserve to grow into the healthy, happy, productive, loving adults you want them to be?
Of course they do. The hard part is we have to be that first.