Don't Fix a Tantrum
Why “Being Emotional” is Actually Good for Us, Our Children, and Our Species
In our culture, emotions are often seen as a nuisance, something to get over or around. Even worse, having emotions—other than a select few with positive associations—has been seen as a weakness, something that we should be ashamed of and must work to conceal. It may, therefore, come as a surprise to learn that emotions are the key to a fully developed brain and a fully realized life.
The emotional brain, the part that governs emotional experience, decides whether we live individual moments from our reptilian brains, thrashing about to achieve basic security, or from our upper brains, skillfully navigating the world with logic and compassion. In other words, awareness and support of emotional processing can make the difference between surviving and thriving. Perhaps more important, our emotional brain also connects us with others. Deep, meaningful relationships are only possible with a robust and healthy knowledge of emotions and how to work through them, not around them.
We want our children to live the fullest lives possible. We don’t want them barely scraping by, clawing their way through a base and limited experience. We like to imagine them with robust brains, capable of soaring to the highest heights. In this light, we need to teach emotional literacy with as much devotion as we teach reading, writing, and arithmetic.
How do we teach emotional literacy?
There are three important aspects to teaching emotional literacy. It’s important to model it for our children, and not try to “fix” their emotions, but instead connect to them. I’ll take these steps one by one.
Model. Emotional literacy is not learned via pen and paper, or by lengthy lectures from Mom and Dad. Thanks to mirror neurons, if we model healthy emotional expression, our children pick it up. This means we need to be in touch with our emotions, and express them. We should identify frustration when the garbage cans block the driveway, express our nervousness and insecurity when it bubbles up before a holiday party, and no longer say “I’m fine,” when we’re actually worried or mad. Don’t wait to be alone before you shed tears.
We want to protect our children. Tax bills, divorce, world wars, and scary politics do not belong in the realm of the innocent, it’s true—but living our emotional life out loud does not mean always revealing the adult material behind our woes. We can express sadness, anxiety, anger, disappointment, or fear without sharing age-inappropriate details. Here’s an sample exchange:
“What’s wrong, Mama?”
“I’m feeling anxious about a few things.”
“Oh. You’re crying?”
“Yep. I feel sad and nervous right now.”
“Are you okay?”
“I am okay. I’m taking good care of myself and good care of you, and I’m sad and nervous at the same time.”
A parent that hides or runs away from emotion, blames it on others, or explodes suddenly with pent-up emotion, is damaging. A parent that cries when they are sad, names their emotion, and continues to care for themselves and others is an emotional leader. This kind of modeling teaches children to effectively use their emotional brain, the most efficient and powerful way to manage the ups and downs of life.
Don’t Fix. When our children are upset, we find ourselves willing to do almost anything to make the crying or screaming stop. Even when it’s only a mild upset, we immediately look for how we can remove it instead of moving through it.
“MOM! I dropped my cookie and the dog ate it! Dumb dog! Waaaaaah!”
“Oh, honey! It’s okay! Honey, stop crying! We have more cookies. Look! Here’s a new cookie! Really, it’s okay. It’s not a big deal.”
Sometimes the crying stops with a new cookie, but often it doesn’t. We scratch our heads, roll our eyes, and chalk it up to exhaustion or the “terrible twos.” Maybe we even get mad and rescind our offer of a replacement cookie.
There are other reasons for upset; perhaps your child doesn’t have anyone to sit with at school, or wants to use the water bottle her sister is currently using. The details aren’t important. But when the upset doesn’t stop, even though we’ve come up with a perfectly logical solution to the problem (why don’t you share that water bottle?), it’s confusing…until you understand how emotions work. Feelings don’t get fixed. A feeling arises, the upper brain notes it, and because the upper brain doesn’t do emotion, it shuts down and sends processing to the emotional brain. The emotional brain checks to see if the environment is safe—is there a trusted person willing to hold space for the emotion?—and if it is, the emotion surfaces, is processed, and then drifts away.
When we approach emotional situations with logical solutions, the emotional brain gets very agitated. It’s like shouting Chinese to someone who speaks French: It’s simply the wrong language. It comes across as antagonistic, not soothing and safe. When emotional safety is lacking, the emotional brain shuts down and lets the lower brain duke it out. W
e want our kids to become emotionally literate. So we need to get comfortable with our discomfort when they are upset. Remember that emotion is a friend, not a foe; we should prove that to our kids by not pushing them to avoid emotion with logical fixes.
Connect. So if we aren’t troubleshooting the issues that cause our children so much pain, what are we doing? As I mentioned above, we’re providing emotional safety. All we have to do is notice an emotion, name that emotion, and express understanding for that emotion. In practical terms it looks like this:
Notice: “Dog ate your cookie?”
Name: “Shoot! Do you feel mad?”
Understand: “Darn it! That’s not what you wanted!”
Notice: “You don’t feel like there is anyone to hang out with at school?”
Name: “Do you feel lonely?”
Understand: “That’s a bummer. It feels good to be with people you enjoy.”
Notice: “Your sister has the water bottle you want to use?”
Name: “I see. That can feel frustrating, huh? You both want the same one.”
Understand: “Shucks. You really wanted to use that.”
Leave space around the emotion. Ask open-ended curiosity questions like, How long have you felt this way? Have you ever felt this way before? Where do you notice it in your body? Let them describe the emotion to you and empathize some more. Augment the sense of emotional safety with additional connection, such as eye contact, proximity, and touch.
The last ingredient is time. Even with a connective response, it can still take anywhere from 30 seconds to an hour—or more, depending on the intensity—for an emotion to express and for neurochemistry to shift. When emotional regulation is re-attained, the emotional brain opens that golden gate and allows processing to move into the upper brain. Until the child has regained access to their upper brain, it doesn’t make sense to troubleshoot the issue at hand—they won’t have access to logic and problemsolving faculties.
Children’s brains aren’t developed enough to process these emotions on their own. They need us to walk with them through their emotions again and again. With practice, their brains will hard-wire for this activity and they will no longer need us as guides.
When should we teach it?
Emotions happen all the time, because life happens all the time.
Sometimes we forget to send an important e-mail, or we step in dog poop, or accidentally lock the keys in the car. These are perfect opportunities to model healthy emotional expression. Simply notice the arrival of the emotion, and name it. Modeling this sequence is powerful enough to set up a strong foundation for emotional literacy.
Sometimes our children lose their teddy bear, hate what’s for dinner, get shampoo in their eyes, aren’t invited to a birthday party, or rip the seat of their jeans in algebra class. These are perfect opportunities to stop yourself before you suggest brilliant solutions to their problems, or try to reassure them the issues aren’t anything to be upset about. These moments are ideal for helping them instead to name those emotions, to nod understandingly and rub their backs, to connect with them until the emotions lose their grip.
Once everyone is back in their upper brains you can still discuss where to look for the teddy, how to avoid shampoo in the eyes, different friend-making strategies, jean patching, and other solutions—not before.
Emotional interactions are not something to be saved up or scheduled on the calendar. If our children are to grow dynamic and powerful emotional brains, these conversations should happen at least daily.
Why does something so simple seem so hard?
Most of us did not receive this kind of emotional training as children. By watching our parents, we learned strategies like stoicism, avoidance, achievement, and blame as ways to work around having feelings. We learned this subtly via body language and adult conversations, and also explicitly when we were punished for crying or lauded for being brave. We became neurally wired to hide emotions, overpower emotions, and avoid emotions, not to tenderly walk through them.
Later, we began noticing that most of our inherited childhood strategies simply don’t work. We were still feeling uncomfortable emotions, and figured something was wrong with us. Many of us sought therapy and wrestled with our shame, convinced we were different from others, or broken. Many of us were diagnosed with conditions and medicated. Our awareness of our emotions became dulled. We lived flatter lives, but at least we weren’t experiencing as much pain.
Now, embracing emotion feels challenging because we simply have no practice with it. It’s like suddenly realizing we have another limb. We’re awkward and unskilled with it. The good news is that our brains are plastic—they can change—and brains are affected by one another. Each time we help our children to notice and name their feelings, each time we help them feel understood, our brains also receive that benefit. As we help our children to become emotionally literate, we rewire our own brains for the same.
What if we don’t have children?
Many of us come up against this sort of thing because we have children and they have emotions all the time, so we have no choice but to get involved at some level. In many ways this is the greatest gift children bring us—an engagement with our own emotional terrain that we otherwise do our best to avoid. But that emotional terrain exists whether we have kids or not. The good news is, everything we offer them in the name of emotional support we can offer ourselves.
Don’t fix. When you notice anxiety, or frustration, or anger, stop yourself before you make a to-do list, start an Internet search, or schedule an appointment. Remember, feelings don’t get fixed. Whatever solution you think you may find is only an illusion, the feelings will simply wait for the next trigger, getting more potent all the while. Instead take some time, notice the feeling, and name it.
Connect. We tend to think that we need other people in order to experience connection, but self-connection is also very powerful. Offer yourself empathy for your emotional experience. Nurture yourself like you would a newborn— with a warm blanket, a gentle hand on the back of your neck—not as a way out of the emotion, but to give yourself the stamina and courage it takes to be with an emotion.
At first it will feel effortful, like moving that new limb would be, to identify what feelings we are feeling. Initially we may only be able to name a few basics, like “mad” or “frustrated.” But the more we look, the more varied shades of emotion will emerge. The process of getting to know oneself and love oneself at this level is new and unfamiliar, but with practice we’ll get better at it.
We can do this.
We can raise our children to use emotions to their advantage, to walk through them gracefully, and spring back easily and quickly from setbacks. We can nurture their emotional brains so well that meaningful relationships based on true connection form the fabric of their lives. We can offer ourselves the same level of emotional support, embracing emotions that we have long tried to avoid, thereby re-raising ourselves. We can grow big, powerful, emotional brains capable of moving us through even our darkest hours, and find the kind of true connection we’ve only dreamed of.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #62.
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