alternate post title: LET ME FEEL MY FEELINGS!!
Let’s open with a hypothetical conversation I may or may not have had with my husband recently (but probably totally did)…..
The scene is this. It is 9pm. I’m curled up at the dining room table in my pajamas, hypothetically drinking tea (but probably the nice whiskey I got for Valentine’s Day). My husband is heating up leftovers for dinner since he worked late. The house is tidy (enough) and the kids have just fallen asleep. This is what I like to call the Victory Hour. Feet up, heart rate down, and just enjoy the quiet.
Me: Do you ever have one of those days where it is 4pm and you just feel so done with parenting and you really want to check out for the rest of the day?
Him: Like done being a parent? Or done with the crappy parenting stuff?
Me: The crappy stuff. I just really didn’t want to do parenting today: the dinner, the dishes, the lunches, the bedtimes, the teeth brushing. All of it. I felt so done. It can just feel so relentless and everyone thinks they need everything right that second and it’s really overwhelming.
Him: No, I haven’t. But I could see how you would feel this way and I’m sorry, it must be exhausting.
Did you see what happened there? It was so simple. My husband just empathized with my feelings and simply acknowledged them.
This conversation could have taken many wrong turns, on both our ends. And in the past it sure has. I mean, Conor is well-known for his epic portfolio of ‘things I should never have said to my pregnant wife’ and I have had many many moments of being a mom martyr. But we shared this moment where I could come to him feeling exhausted and disappointed and he was like, girl I see that and you go ahead and feel those feelings. Instead of me blaming or taking it out on him and instead of him saying something that would make me feel unheard or dramatic – we found a way to connect through it.
Oh, wait, I’m allowed to feel my feelings?
Learning to identify how we are feeling, why we are feeling that way and how we are acting because of it is called self-awareness. I can’t tell you the embarassing number of years it took me to start using this skill. The Enneagram was a tool that first helped me gain some self-awareness. Particularly when it comes to feeling angry.
I feel like we all have a complicated relationship with anger. We all feel it, but what do we do with this anger? I know I personally am anger-avoidant (again, thank you Enneagram!). I don’t like to think about anger, or acknowledge anger, or admit to anger. In fact, it took me years to admit how angry I was in motherhood. And when I did admit it I felt free and icky at the same time. Maybe because it is counter to the culture of ‘motherhood is bliss, the best thing that ever happened, blah blah blah’. Also, maybe because I didn’t know what to do with this anger. I didn’t want responsibility for it.
I’ve recently learned that anger is a ‘secondary emotion’. It is the tip of the iceberg that has a big icy ballast of underwater emotions (feeling sad, disrespected, lost). Our feelings aren’t facts, they aren’t always based on what is true, but they are informers that something isn’t making sense to our hearts and minds. They are signals that tell us to stop and pay attention.
It makes me very aware that ’emotional intelligence’ is not a skill I had learned growing up. I think the avoidance of anger all together just really masked how out of touch with my feelings I really was for so long.
Now, I am not blaming my parents for a skill it took me 30+ years to learn. I believe they did the best they could with what they had. I also think there was a certain culture around ’emotions’ that I think the Children of Baby Boomers were raised with (yup, I’m old enough to have made it through high school without cell phones and google).
Maybe you have had a similar experience growing up. Negative emotions were considered unnecessary or unacceptable. So instead of looking at them as markers of a bigger issue, they were ignored. There was probably some passive-aggressive or self-destructive behaviour to give these big gross feelings a place to go. We slowly turned off this ability to tune into ourselves and others. We lost sight of who we are and what we want and why we want it.
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Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child
I have recently read a book called Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child by Dr. John Gottman
We give our kids a life of guidance around how to share, how to eat, how to make friends, how to brush their teeth, how to work hard. But do we give them guidance on what to do with those big feelings of sadness or anger?
The book opens with all the reasons why Emotional Intelligence is important. If you are a parent you probably can feel the need for emotional intelligence in your own life (anyone else diving head first into the treat cupboard when naptime rolls around? Or sending their kids to yet another timeout because they are so flipping mad at their child and just.can’t.even.rightnow!?). Emotional intelligence gives you tools to understand your emotions, adjust your behaviours and cope better. So, if we can give this skill to our kids earlier on they are more likely to make better life decisions, cope in healthier ways and be more resilient, empathetic people.
This book is about empowering you and your kids to work through their feelings – sad, angry, confused – through a process called emotion coaching. Which turns out might have the domino effect of you starting to work through your own feelings (ugly crying in the bathtub might become a regular occurrence, but hang in there, emotional intelligence is a muscle that hasn’t been in use in many, many years)
The book describes four parenting styles when it comes to relating to your kid’s emotions:
(There is a test in the book and online to help you find out what type of parent you are, the test is long and clunky though)
The Dismissing Parent
Treats their kid’s feelings as unimportant, minimizes them, ignores them or downplays them. They respond with lots of ‘it’s ok’, ‘you’re fine’, ‘go do something else’ or try to distract them (usually by making some silly faces, tickling them, or offering a reward to stop the negative feeling).
The Disapproving Parent
Tells their kids that their feelings are a form of misbehaving. They criticize how their kids express their anger or sadness. They might discipline their kid or send them to their room because of their emotions.
Here is what Gottman says our kids are learning when we treat their feelings with disapproval or dismissiveness: That their feelings are wrong, inappropriate, not valid. They may learn that there is something inherently wrong with them because of the way they feel. They may have difficulty regulating their own emotions.
The Laissez-Faire Parent
This is the sit back and ride it out approach. The child is free to express their emotions, but the parent kind of avoids their kid, justifies their tantrums as ‘getting it all out’, and doesn’t intervene to set limits or guidance on behaviours.
Gottman says this child of a Laissez-Faire parenting doesn’t learn how to regular their emotions and this can contribute to problems getting along with peers, forming friendships and a kid’s ability to concentrate.
The proposed ideal form of parenting is,
The Emotion Coach.
This parent sees negative emotions as an opportunity to get close to their kids. They are likely aware of their own emotions and take the time to help their kids become aware of their emotions too. They practice empathy, they don’t make fun or discipline their kids’ negative feelings. They take the time to walk their kids through their feelings and what they can do about it.
This style of parenting helps the child to learn to trust their feelings, regulate their own emotions and solve problems.
When I read out this section to my husband, we both could see ourselves in either dismissive or disciplining the negative emotions our kids were feeling.
If I reflect on my own parenting, I see how uncomfortable I have been with my kids’ emotions, and how for a long time I thought that if I wasn’t raising a ‘happy kid’ then I was doing something wrong. Happy Kids can’t be my parenting goal and I feel like Emotion Coaching is a tool to help me with this.
The book proposes we approach emotional coaching with these steps:
Be aware of a child’s emotions
This has been a tough one for me because each of my three kids will express their frustrations in different ways. From being silly and reckless, to being passive aggressive, to outright tantrums. It takes a lot of watching for patterns in each of them to start to tune into when they are upset. If I wait for everything to fall apart, it makes emotion coaching harder. If I can pull them aside and ask them about how they are feeling it can be easier for them to let me in to what is bugging them.
Recognize emotional expression as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
This book says “The feelings are not the problem. The behaviour is the problem.” And another quote comes to mind now when my kids are ‘acting out’ is “my kid is not giving me a hard time, they are having a hard time”. If I can switch my gears from seeing my own frustration with my kids, to seeing that they are really frustrated with life I can come down to them and help them. I can help offer a way out of this frustration instead of being a catalyst of it.
I have a spirited daughter whose feelings have feelings. I wonder with some sense of dread what teenage years will be like. But as she brings her daily concerns to me, I know that I am showing her that I am a safe place to come to. I won’t make fun or scold or shun. I will listen and help her through it. I want her to learn from coming to me with the little things that a five-year-old thinks are big and daunting, that she can continue coming to me with the big things that a sixteen-year-old will experience.
Listen empathetically and validate a child’s feelings
This can be a time-consuming part but this is the moment where walls can be broken and they let you in. Just like my husband asking me about me wanting to punch the clock on parenting for the day. I was listened to. The time we put into listening to the conversation is noted: your kids are going to pick up on you rushing through this and they will not be cool with it.
I find the time crunch of this step to be an interesting hurdle. Sometimes I am noticing that I need to make more time in my day to check in with my kids and make space (without distractions) for them to talk to me about what is bugging them. Sometimes I am noticing that they have really inopportune timing. Like, when we should have left the house ten minutes ago but someone is melting down because they decided they HAD to have a toy that hasn’t been seen in months. The book does give some advice for moments like these; acknowledging how they are feeling and letting them know we will deal with it later. The kicker though – gotta have the followup or your kid will call you on your lack of follow through at another inopportune time. Like 9:07 pm when you’ve launched into Victory Hour and they are all “hey remember when I couldn’t find my stuffed bunny this morning and you said you would help me later?……it’s ‘later’ now”.
Label emotions in words a child can understand
I have one child who can colour-code, convert to a sketch, and rate their emotions on a scale of ‘turtle slow sadness’ to ‘flying unicorn fast happy’. Then I have a toddler who needs help understanding how different emotions make them feel – and it all comes out as one sloppy angry mess. Is there a sesame street episode for this? Because I refuse to make charts to hang on their wall to help them with this. So, you could say that we are all learning how to do this one.
So if we can uncover what the emotion is we can give them examples of when we have felt that emotion in our own lives too. In my opinion, if we identify anger I gently dig a little deeper as to why they feel mad about it. This is the moment where we feel what the disconnect is that they see in their needs and desires and the world around them. This is the moment where they get to say whatever they are feeling and I will just listen and paraphrase and empathize.
Help a child discover appropriate ways to solve a problem or deal with an upsetting situation
This piece is important to me. If it wasn’t for this step I wouldn’t subscribe to much of this book BECAUSE I appreciate emotion coaching if it leads to progress. I don’t want to just sit and talk about feelings all day, I want to help them move on in healthy ways. How do we jump from ‘your feelings matter and I see you’, etc to ‘you can’t bite your friend if they have a toy you want, that was so uncool!’.
I appreciate this quote from the book “all feelings are permissible; not all behaviour is permissible, And, the parent-child relationship is not a democracy; it is the parent who determines what behaviour is permissible”.
Is feeling angry when your mom won’t let you use a tablespoon of every toothpaste in the drawer to brush your teeth like it is a fluoride smorgasbord? Yes, you can feel angry. Is it okay to paint the bathroom counter with toothpaste to show your rage? No. I mean…..sometimes I can’t even look my kids in the eye after seeing the crime scene in the bathroom after bedtimes…..they are monsters! BUT I am their mom so they are my monsters and I have to help them deal with the disappointing trauma of using just one type of toothpaste at a time.
How it worked for our home
For about three years now I have had one child in our family who I struggle with tremendously in parenting. They are strong and independent and can be disrespectful and mean when they don’t get their way. They have a tough time opening up and expressing what they are feeling in healthy ways.
So I tried emotion coaching on them.
What a difference this has made.
It isn’t fixing every single problem we have, and it isn’t a quick and easy solution. It can feel messy to sit with this kid and slowly help them draw out why they are upset and empower them to find a way they want to work through it. In the moment it doesn’t always feel like it is working, but I have noticed something incredible. We are closer, they let me in when times are hard and when times are good. This non-cuddling, do-my-own-thing kid is becoming a cuddly, let’s-hang-out-mom, can-we-talk-about-this kind of kid. I know it is because they are feeling heard and understood. They didn’t really trust me with their feeling before. But now I see that they are feeling respected – something that I think was deteriorating our relationship, a lack of mutual respect.
Our feelings can lead us astray if we let them control our behaviours. The book gives good advice on this by pointing out how it is important to focus on your kid’s actions rather than their character. Instead of saying they are a mean person, let them know their action was wrong and hurtful. I mean, we as adults all know the shame spiral that comes when we do something we wish we haven’t (I should have never said that, I’m a horrible friend, I’m a crappy person, etc.). We all mess up but we aren’t permanently horrible because of it. Let’s help our kids to avoid the nightmarish ride of the shame spiral.
All in all, I think this echoes to our need for self-awareness and grace. Self-awareness to acknowledge that we are a messy ball of feelings that can really hinder us in living healthy lives. And grace to give to ourselves and to others. Grace to kids who are just learning and learning again – so often I have to remind myself just how little rational thought my kids have (if the toothpasted bathroom wasn’t a reminder). They are just so small and it takes time and repetition to learn things. Also, grace to ourselves as parents – that we will screw this up but we can always come back to one another and ask for forgiveness and try again tomorrow.
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