Let’s get real about how we handle emotions in our kids.
The other day I was talking with a schoolteacher who was also a mother. She was amazed and concerned about the extent of mental health issues and self-harm behaviours in the students at her high school. So many of the students, she said, were struggling with low mood, anxiety and hopelessness and it seemed they were turning to self-injury as a way of ‘coping’. It was a new school for her and she was wondering just have representative these problems were among high school students. There’s no doubt that there is a variety of ways to look at this problem. Her school was also fairly rural and perhaps her observation reflected a lack of available mental health supports in the region. However, regardless of these issues, it does raise a more general problem, which is widely apparent in our community at large.
Lets look at the issue of emotions and how we handle them as people and parents. I think this is one of the core issues at the heart of most mental health issues today. Certainly if I look at my practice, I can see that problems with ‘emotional regulation’ are at the core of most emotional disorders. This is not to be flippant and over-general, the issue is actually very real and fundamental. If as very small children, infants even, we were better taught about out emotional selves, then I would probably be out of a job. It’s never too early to help young children learn about emotions, what they are, how to identify them, how they feel in the body and what to do with them. We are not born with these crucial skills, they need to be explicitly taught to us as young children and as parents we need to model these skills to our children. We need to begin to teach very young children that emotions (or feelings) are normal and they are part of being human and all of them, even the ones that might be annoying or feel unpleasant, are Ok and that they can learn to deal with absolutely any of them. There is no such thing as a bad emotion. Every emotion has its place and its function. There is a field in psychology and psychotherapy called ‘Emotion Coaching’ (John Gottman and colleagues). This ‘therapy’ or way of approaching emotional material is used both as a tool to teach parents how to coach their children in noticing and coping with emotions, and also as a form of couples therapy. This is certainly an area to be explored if you are interested in the topic.
Like many things in life, we tend to view emotions, particularly ‘unpleasant’ ones (sadness, anger for example), as permanent. One of the things about emotions is that they are not permanent, they come and go and change in quality and tone. This is natural and normal and a vital piece of information that we need to teach children. If children get the message (either directly or indirectly) that some emotions are bad and intolerable, then they will never learn to handle the more difficult emotions. They will grow up to think that certain emotions are unacceptable and that they need to block them out or quickly switch them off – this is a big fat problem. One of the forces driving our alarmingly high youth suicide rate is surely this inability to cope with unpleasant feelings and the belief that these feelings are permanent and inescapable. Sadly, suicide is a permanent condition. In many cases, teens are overwhelmed by a flood of negative emotions, together with a belief that these are permanent and little to no skills in how to get through these difficulties. Often in this age group, self-harm and suicidal acts are impulsive, desperate attempts at switching off temporary (but intense), emotional pain.
I encourage all parents s to get skilled up with emotion coaching and teach their children from a very early age all there is to know about emotions . By doing this, we will be actively reducing future mental health issues and creating a society, which is less impulsive, more mindful, and more compassionate towards our-selves and others. Please, don’t ignore the emotional lives of your children; instead do something which will ultimately amount to reducing your child’s vulnerability to psychological & relationship problems later on. Take the time now to attune to your kids and assist them in learning about their emotions and how to ride through them for the better.