Open to Emotion

I was in Trader Joe’s the other day. Next line over was a boy and his mom. Suddenly, wails billowed from his little three-year-old body. He was holding his mouth, pointing to the shopping cart. The nasty steel contraption that is so fun to hang on, had somehow come alive and pinched his lip.

His mom scooped him up to console him, and the cashier ran over with colorful stickers to cheer him up. Within a minute, all was fine.

Except for the conversation that ensued.

“He’s never stopped crying so quickly!” exclaimed his pleased mother. “I can’t believe it.”

“Of course. He’s a big boy. Aren’t, you?” cajoled the cashier. The boy sniffled and slowly nodded his head.

“I should carry those stickers around with me,” the mother continued. “They’re like magic!”

This tyke was being prided on his ability to suck it up, and was being taught a thing or two about feelings in the process. No wonder boys grow into men who have a hard time expressing feelings, especially vulnerable ones.

In the name of “civilizing” our children are there times when we unintentionally do a disservice?  After all, this was clearly not a whiny, I can manipulate the world with my feelings, situation. This was a real, spontaneous, E-motion–energy-in-motion–that physiologically demanded immediate release.

As children grow up, with our help they develop the capacity to better regulate their emotions, a crucial life skill they gotta learn. But what was going on here, was not this.

How many times have you heard yourself or others saying, “Don’t cry, it will be alright,” trying to soothe? I grew up with parents and other adults responding to me this way, and thought it was perfectly normal until I gave it some thought. Trying to stifle emotions in our children and ourselves is generally not the healthiest of responses, yet it’s a widely accepted thing to do.

In Compassionate Child-Rearing, Dr. Robert Firestone discusses something he refers to as the implicit pain of sensitive child-rearing. Raising children with the emotional bonding they need—sensitivity, empathy and compassion—requires the parent to be open and vulnerable, willing to feel the child’s emotional states, (the pleasurable and the painful) as well as their own. To be tuned in to their child’s pain and hurt would mean that parents would have to feel along with them. I think what happens is that we try to wipe away their pain because it’s so difficult to witness, running from our own feelings while teaching them to do the same.

But we can’t control what feelings we, or someone else experiences, nor can we always protect our loved ones from the bumps and bruises and emotional traumas of life. The only thing we can do to help is to truly “be there” by being connected to our feelings and the feelings of others. This is the kind of love our kids need, not stickers, not distractions, and not smiling, approving faces when they’re sucking it up for our benefit.

Next time your child comes to you with a genuine expression of feeling, reflect for a moment and let yourself feel. Then simply ask them if they’re sad, hurt, angry, or whatever you imagine it is that they’re feeling; and allow them to correct you if you’re wrong. That’s emotional attunement, a response that goes a long way towards helping them learn to integrate instead of suppressing their feelings.

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One Comment

Debra King

Michelle, I’m wanting to make a referral to you. Are you still practicing in Santa Barbara? What would the phone number be?

Talk soon?
Debra King

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