I don’t know about you, but I have a lot to do, and dealing with my emotional life on top of it all often feels inconvenient and uncomfortable. Even more challenging is trying to manage the (less-filtered) emotional lives of my children on a daily basis. To be honest, it’s easier to suppress my feelings and teach my children to do the same, valuing our logical inner lives more than our somewhat chaotic emotional ones. But even though a suppressed emotional life helps contribute to a poised and manageable exterior, not to mention more-easily-controlled children, it unfortunately does not lead to emotional well-being. In fact, how we view our emotions (and our children’s) is key to nurturing safe, secure environments for our families to grow and thrive. Emotional suppression and emotional intelligence are far from the same thing.
If we want to raise emotionally healthy children instead of emotionally suppressed children, the first question we must ask ourselves is Do we rigidly view emotions as good/bad and positive/negative? It’s easy for us to believe that our feelings of sadness are automatically bad, instead of making room for them and paying attention to what they’re trying to tell us. Maybe I’m sad because I’m too busy, or maybe I need to let myself grieve the changing of a season in my life I’m trying to ignore. Maybe I’m angry because I have failed to lay down a boundary in my life someone keeps crossing. Emotions are biological cues that point to things we value. Like my therapist says, they are simply data, not ends in themselves. If we ignore our emotions, they ironically end up owning us. If we listen to our emotions and let them guide us, we end up living a more authentic, embodied life that fully reflects our values. Here are three practical parenting tips I’ve recently learned that help nurture the emotional lives of my children:
Parenting Tip #1: Teach your child to use correct language when talking about his emotions. Instead of saying “I am angry!”, adjust your child’s language to say, “I am feeling angry right now.” Teach your child that he is not his emotion. Instead, he contains a diversity of emotions inside of him at once. If he sees himself as one and the same with his emotion at any given time, he will be much more tempted to let his emotions control his actions. But if he sees that what he feels is different from who he is as a person, he will understand that he owns his emotions, they don’t own him. He will begin to learn how to listen to what his emotions are telling him, and then let his emotions point him toward living a life that aligns with his values.
Tip #2: Talk your child through traumatic events. If your child has experienced a traumatic car wreck, physical accident, etc., it’s easy for us to want to distract them with a treat, hoping they simply forget about it. But child development experts do not recommend this strategy. Instead, talking the scary incident over with them again and again will help them integrate their experience, because this helps their left brain interpret their right-brained emotional reactions.
It’s helpful to ask leading questions and let them tell the story from their own perspective. “What happened that day when mommy got in the fender bender? Were you scared? Then what happened? Were we okay in the end?” Let them tell it over and over again, making sure to include the parts where help intervened and everything worked out in the end. This helps them integrate their logical left brain with their emotional right brain; the more they talk it through, the better.
Parenting Tip #3: Connect on an emotional level with your child before you lecture. When my daughter interrupts my late night “me” time with an illogical fear of ghosts in the closet, it’s tempting for me to invalidate her right-brained, emotional fear with a left-brained, logical answer. “You know there’s no such thing as ghosts. Now go back to bed; you’re supposed to be asleep!” As objectively correct as this answer would be, it does nothing to raise an emotionally intelligent child. Instead, it communicates that her feelings are unimportant, and my expectation is that she suppresses them and behaves in a way that conveniences me.
Instead of responding this way, a more emotionally intelligent response would be to meet her emotional outcry with an emotional response: “Aw honey, I’m so sorry you’re so scared! I remember being scared when I was your age, too. Sometimes I’m still scared. Fear is such a terrible feeling, isn’t it? Would it help if I came and showed you there are no ghosts in the closet, and then tomorrow we can learn more about why I don’t believe ghosts exist? In the meantime, maybe I can put on some music for you while you go to sleep to help you not be afraid?”
By connecting in this way, you help throw your child, who is drowning in a flood of feelings, an emotional life-preserver. You show them you are a safe place for them, that they matter to you, and that you value what they value (because you value them). You also teach them to pay attention to and even honor what is going on in their right brains, not just their logical left brains.
After all, the right brain is the part of their brain responsible for understanding life’s big picture, giving us a life filled with deep and lasting relationships, connecting us to our intuition, and even alerting us to bodily sensations that we often mute and learn to ignore when we are not schooled in emotional intelligence. Suppressing our right brain not only leads to a choppy, disjointed life that lacks meaning and beauty, but also to unhealthy physical lives as well. A healthy emotional life is deeply connected to a healthy physical life. We all want this for our children. Teaching them how to handle their emotions – even the uncomfortable ones – and not suppress them is a very good place to start.
For more on how to raise emotionally intelligent children, I recommend reading The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, PH.D.
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