Negative Feelings, Essential Signals on the Road of Life: Supporting our Children on their Path

supporting childrens emotionsWhile bearing our own suffering is bad enough, watching our children struggle can be almost unbearable! It’s natural to want to avoid things that are uncomfortable and unpleasant, and especially to protect our children from experiencing them.  And clearly, suffering for extended periods of time is unacceptable. But the truth is, life is not without physical and emotional suffering. From the moment our children are born, they need to breathe on their own and communicate their distress. And part of our job as parents is to help them contend with this distress so they can learn to take care of themselves. Learning about negative feelings and their meaning helps our children attend to critical information so they can effectively navigate through their lives.

In this day and age, there are infinite ways for our kids to attempt to avoid and escape negative emotions and discomfort.  They have quick access to distraction and sources of entertainment in the palm of their hand.  At almost any moment, they can grab mom’s cell phone out of her purse so they don’t have to be bored waiting in line at the grocery store or, worse yet, we hand it to them so they are quiet during dinner in the restaurant.  Rather than tolerating the space for something creative to emerge during unstructured time, kids can immediately fill the gap with playing games on the tablet.  At the first pang of loneliness, they can check their social media, read tweets or send selfies.  They don’t even have to tolerate TV commercials or bear listening to an unfamiliar song because they have recorded their shows and developed their own playlists.

Further supporting the notion that things should be quick, easy and to their liking is food delivery services, fast food restaurants and precooked packaged meals, all bypassing the “inconvenience” of marketing, cooking and cleaning up. All of this is not to mention the lesson they learn when they watch adults managing their own negative feelings with alcohol or illicit drugs. Even though medications can be helpful, when we expect them to numb all discomfort we are sending our children a further message that any suffering in unacceptable and intolerable. Avoidance of or escape from negative feelings takes away the very challenge that breeds inspiration, courage, bravery, growth and pride and undermines our kids’ access to their future potential.

This begs the question, what are our children missing when they avoid these feelings? What is the signal that is being provided by each negative emotion?

Let’s look at some of these and at what their value is to us. For example, fear and anger have a protective function. They are responses to threat and injustice.

  • Fear, an emotion stirred by an impending event, prompts us to slam on the breaks and consider a proactive protective response. Planning, strategy, preparation, hard work, seeking resources and asking for help can all be rallied in response to a sense of fear.
  • Anger activates the energy to try to make something STOP or to try to confront injustice to make change. Our kids need to be able to respond effectively to threats to their safety, defend themselves and harness the intensity of their anger to make change.  As they grow, anger can help them assert control, speak up and drive advocacy for a better world.
  • Sadness informs us about a loss. It can be the loss of a relationship or dream, a sense of disadvantage, helplessness or an unmet expectation.  This emotion can bring support from others and drive reflection that helps us consider how we can make changes. Being able to rally after the sadness disappointment or failure bring can hone the judgment necessary to tackle the next challenge.
  • Disgust is vital to disease avoidance and hygiene maintenance.

These negative emotions are essential for personal safety.  They are part of the bumps and bruises of being human which build resilience, teach compassion and grow experience to tackle future challenges.

Embarrassment, guilt envy and jealousy are considered “social emotions” and have the function of helping our children consider how they fit in with others so they can make adjustments to maintain their connections.  That is why it is so painful in the teen years when fitting is of critical importance.

  • Embarrassment means they acted in a way that was out of the social norm, raising the alarm that they need to reconsider their future actions to be socially acceptable.
  • Guilt, on the other hand, lets them know they have violated their own sense of morality.  The distress of this negative emotion prompts apology and repair when we hurt or offend someone.  The lessons of guilt also help our children learn to inhibit their impulses to act on their desires when it might offend or hurt another.

The angst generated by these social emotions, when taken as information, can inspire change to fit in socially. On the other hand, envy and jealousy are comparison emotions.

  • Envy is an emotion that arises when our child compares himself to another and concludes he is inferior in some manner. Attending to this distress can drive differentiation, and help your child explore the gifts that are uniquely his!
  • Jealousy is about losing an important relationship. The pain of this emotion provides important information both about the kind of partner that suits us best and what it takes to sustain relationships.

Part of having a full life is fitting in and having relationships and these social negative emotions help our children learn how to do this.

While we have many distractions and conveniences in our own lives that leave us numb to our emotions, perhaps it is time to reconsider the impact that this avoidance has on our children. Being able to quickly evade or escape discomfort may handicap our kids in a manner that is equivalent to driving blind.  Negative feelings give us vital information. Fear is like a stop sign in the face of danger or an orange traffic signal alerting us to proceed with caution or reconsider our actions. Unharnessed anger is fierce and can be like driving a powerful sports car recklessly, leaving carnage in its wake. However, harnessed anger is constructive and gets new signs posted, potholes on repaired, and laws changed. Continuing with the driving metaphor, sadness helps us accept what is and inspires us to consider how we might find alternate routes in the futures.  The social emotions of embarrassment, guilt, envy and jealousy have to be tolerated to be able to share the road as we follow the rules to drive safely. All of these feelings are like the traffic lights, turn signals, white, yellow, single and double painted lines on the road, speed bumps and limits, freeway and street signs that help us get from here to there safely on our journey.

When our kids quell their boredom with our phone in the grocery line or we hand them a tablet to avert a tantrum in the restaurant, perhaps it is important for us, as parents, to take a different stance in regard to their negative feelings.  Rather than escaping or avoiding them, it is important that we help our children face their negative feelings and heed their lessons. Why not unplugging the devices? Try cooking together and making dinner a time for conversation about the day.

Let your children know your stories of how you have tolerated and grown from your negative feelings.  Encourage them to discuss theirs. Validate how uncomfortable it is to be embarrassed, sad, scared and feel guilty and show them that you empathize. Cry with them and hug them. You can also model how to apologize and repair. Overall, rather than see negative feelings as something bad from which our children need to be protected, consider these emotions as essential for learning to navigate their life path. While no parent wants to see a child to suffer, we have to accept that it is a part of life.  Avoidance or escaping negative feelings can be a roadblock we have to help our children break through so that they can reach their potential.


About the Author

Debra Kessler, Psy.D. Debra Kessler, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the care of children and their families. Dr. Kessler was awarded her Bachelor of Science in Nursing, graduating Magna Cum Laude from Vanderbilt University. While working as an RN in Pediatric Intensive Care, she pursued a Masters Degree in Pediatrics from UCLA to further her skills in caring for children. After a career in nursing that included bedside nursing, Kessler chose to focus her attention on addressing the emotional needs of children and their families by obtaining a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at California School of Professional Psychology. Her post-doctorate work was done with Child Development Institute treating autistic and developmentally challenged preschool and young children and at Reiss-Davis Child Study center addressing the needs of school children, adolescents and their families. She has contributed to Infant/Child Mental Health, Early Intervention, and Relationship-Based Therapies: A Neurorelational Framework for Interdisciplinary Practice (Lillas &Turnbull 2009). Dr. Kessler has an active practice in Montrose, California. In a family centered manner, she treats a range of developmental and emotional issues including adoption/attachment difficulties, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, autism/Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, learning challenges, regulatory difficulties and other issues that interfere with children reaching their potential.

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