Yes, I’m stealing The Stones’ song title, though I could have said Emotional Literacy, or Emotional Intelligence too. Emotions are so misunderstood. They have such a bad rap in our relatively stoic and repressed culture. My highest hope is a collective of human beings who value emotions. A body of people for whom the idea of emotional rescue, means actually feeling them. The best, and for the record quickest way to “get past” or “over” a feeling, is to just feel it—go through it. (It may be the only way, but I don’t have proof of that. Yet.)
I had to Google the song lyrics to see if Mick and the gang were on the right track:
Yeah, I was dreaming last night
Last night, I was dreaming
How you’d be mine, but I was crying
Like a child, yeah, I was crying
Crying like a child
Yep, that’s right. Crying like a child is a good start. Expressing feelings comes naturally for young children—it is their first fluent language. They learn to talk way later on—I’m sure I don’t have to remind you. We have this idea that emotional literacy is not expressing our feelings, but instead talking about them. We ask children to “use their words.” (I recently wrote a post about that you can read here.) But knowing one’s feelings and expressing them verbally is a slow and complex process. And I have to wonder: is it ultimately what we should desire?
Sure, feelings are messy—there are the tears and all that snot to contend with—but we must have them for a reason. Our displeasure with feelings is rooted in our conditioning. The messages we received as children about feelings, which ones are okay to express and which are not, are encoded within us—they drive our behavior.
Control and discipline should not be your goal when it comes to feelings. As hard as it may be, listening and holding space for expression are much more useful tools. But these are tools we must develop—it is likely we were not taught them ourselves when we were young. This does not mean that you are permissive or allow for certain behavior, hitting, for example. Simply tell a child you won’t allow hitting, and stop them from doing so. This is a departure from the advice in my book, (luckily, I am always learning!) but trying to talk to child when they are upset is counter-productive. Trying to engage their thinking brain while they are in their feeling brain is usually a dead end. Stopping the behavior, staying close, and saying nothing is actually a worthy goal.
The intense emotional lives of children can be challenging. Because of our varying degrees of comfort with emotion, our first reaction to a child’s moodiness or strong outbursts is often an attempt to moderate them. In my piece about anger, I wrote about how we often want to separate (time-out!) or suppress (calm down!). Without considering the impact of our words, we encourage children to push aside what they are feeling, or to question the validity of their reactions. How often have you said, “Oh, it’s not so bad”? These kinds of comments set the stage for children to start the process of ignoring or hiding their feelings.
Rather than discount their emotional states, help young children learn to pay attention to them, and to express themselves in acceptable ways. Stop the hitting without preaching about it, and allow space for the offload—this is actually a scientific healing process—tears detoxify by getting rid of stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline.
Children are actually very wise in their use of emotional release for restoring a regulated state. The question is: Are the grown-ups emotionally regulated enough to guide them?
(Originally guest posted on The Single Crunch)