Respecting Your Child's Emotional Reality
How to take your children's emotional reality seriously.
Ben comes home from school upset about an argument he had with his fourth-grade friend. His Mom listens at first, but gets impatient when Ben keeps going on and on about it. Finally she says, "Why are you making such a big deal out of such a little thing? In two days neither of you will even remember the incident!"
To Ben, this argument IS a big thing. While his mother recognizes that the argument is not -- in objective terms -- a major catastrophe and that it is likely to be forgotten in a few days, by not paying attention to his perspective, Ben's mom is belittling Ben's emotional experience.
Now let me say right off that I am not one of those mothers who gives great emotional weight to everything my children say. Sometimes I brush my kids off too. No one can always be 100% emotionally tuned in to their kids, nor is it probably healthy for kids to always have that kind of attention. They have to learn that others aren't always willing or able to give them what they need, and that means their parents too.
It helps if we have learned to deal with our own emotional reality first.
Hopefully, however, we are sophisticated and evolved enough to know that we do need to take our children's emotional reality seriously.
It helps if we have learned to deal with our own emotional reality first. This means accepting our own feelings, including the negative ones, and not berating or hating ourselves for having them.
It also means taking responsibility for our feelings and not blaming others for making us feel a certain way. Once we have done this (I haven't gotten there yet), it will be easier to accept our children's feelings and to teach them to work within their own world of emotion.
ACCEPT AND EMPATHIZE
The child's feeling should be important to us. Listen to what he or she is telling you. The Torah says we should strive to be good listeners and help to carry our fellow's burden. ("Ethics of the Fathers" 6:6)
We shouldn't shame or belittle our children for their feelings.
Child: "If I don't pass my drivers test this time I'll be the laughing stock of the class."
Father: "There are much worse things in life than that!"
In this case, it would be much better for the father to say something a little more empathetic, such as: "I guess it's pretty embarrassing to fail more than once, huh?"
Nor should we deny what our children feel. For example:
Child: "Bobby broke my Lego I was building all day and I worked so hard on it. I hate him!"
Mom: "You do not! What a horrible thing to say about your brother."
The truth is that right now the child DOES feel like she hates her brother. The mother would do better to acknowledge how angry her child is feeling and how upsetting it is to have something destroyed when you have put so much time into it (reflect back to how YOU felt the last time your computer broke down before you saved an important document!)
Later when things are calm she might bring up the difference between feeling really angry and actually hating someone, but she should NOT do it in the heat of the moment! She can also suggest that when the child is angry it is better and more accurate to say, "I am very angry at you right now," than to say, "I hate you".
WIN THEIR EMOTIONAL TRUST
We win our children's emotional trust when we accept their feelings and empathize with them. This is the first step to emotional health. If your children have a hard time expressing his feelings, you can try to help them put the feelings into words.
Be sure to tell your children that their feelings are very important to you.
Ask your children: Are you feeling frustrated? Resentful? Scared? Be sure to tell them that their feelings are very important to you. If they are afraid of the dark, of being left at school, or of nightmares or earthquakes, admit that these things ARE scary! Then you can try to come up with solutions: "How could you take care of yourself if I got delayed somewhere and I didn't pick you up from school on time?"
Some children do not like to talk a lot about feelings. I have one child who, whenever I ask him a "feeling question," says "You know I don't like those kind of questions!" So I have to respect that. He also prefers to talk with his father when he does want to talk. I have to accept that too (a little blow to the ego, but I am coping).
Once we have won our children's emotional trust we move on to the more challenging job of teaching them how to actually control their emotional reality. Most adults have not mastered this ability themselves so this is no easy feat. We need to be working on this personally as we try to communicate this lesson to our children.
Judaism teaches that we have the potential to control our emotional reality. We can't say, "I feel what I feel and I have no control over it." It simply is not true. The proof is that we are commanded in many emotions, such as loving our neighbor (and not just when we feel like it, but all the time); we are also commanded not to hate and not to be jealous. And God doesn't command us in anything which is impossible to fulfill.
We have the power to determine our emotional state. This is a very popular concept today in psychology, but we Jews have known it all along. We may not have the power to control what happens outside of us, but we can control our emotional responses.
I am not saying it is easy. It is very difficult and requires a lot of work. The alternative, however, is being affected negatively by every difficult person and event that comes along (which is frequent).
I once tried to discuss this concept with my kids, thinking it would go right over their heads. I told them that people don't make them feel mad or sad. They often make themselves mad or sad by how they interpret what happened.
A few days later I got off from a very exasperating phone call and sat down on the couch stewing. One of my little ones came over to me and said, "Mommy, are you are making yourself angry now?"
We often make ourselves mad or sad by how we interpret what happened.
The point this drove home to me was that we adults have little emotional self-control, so we have to be extra patient with our kids and work on taking control of our emotions together.
If your child comes to you and says, "Lisa hurt my feelings" or "Ben made me so mad," say to her, "Do you know who the boss of your feelings is? You! Are you going to let other people have that power over you or do you want to be the boss of how you feel?"
At first she may not understand you or it may even annoy her, but it conveys an important message that will stick with her as she grows. And that is: "You are the boss of your own feelings."
THEY WILL REMEMBER
We all have things we remember our parents always saying. I remember my father saying, "You always get caught in a lie." Or if I referred to my mother as "she" my father would always say "She? That is your mother!" If our kids remember us telling them that they are the boss of their feelings it can't help but have an impact. Even if a child doesn't understand it now, some day he may say to himself, "What did my mother mean by that?" or "Now I understand why my father always said that."
In sum, we begin by respecting the child's existing emotional reality, but we also teach them to take responsibility for their emotions. As they mature, they will not feel that they are always being emotionally pushed around by others. Actually accomplishing this is more complex of course, but the above suggestions can be a good start.