One of the most important lessons we can teach our children is that ALL feelings are ok, acceptable, and encouraged. This is not to say that all behaviour is acceptable, but we’ll get to that a little later.
When children learn that expressing their emotions is healthy, that asking for help is appreciated, and that feeling unpleasant emotions is not “bad”, this can drastically improve mental health.
We have become conditioned that we should in some form or another, always be “happy”. Or at least content. Or regulated. Or excited. Or joyful. We are taught that unpleasant emotions (anger, fear, disgust, shame, guilt, etc.) should be avoided. But what has this ideal done for society? Depression levels are up, suicide is up, self-reports of personal satisfaction are down.
Why is this?
Because it’s not possible to be on the good side of the spectrum all the time.
We are emotional beings, and while we differ in terms of our experience, expression, and tolerance of unpleasant emotions, we should not be thinking of them as negative.
Firstly, unpleasant feelings are not bad. We create the association that they are bad by telling ourselves that they are bad! We avoid the feeling, and when they arise we immediately try to get back to Positivity-Land. Unfortunately, this mythical country does not exist because that’s not how our brains and chemistry are built, and for good reason: the emotion is there to tell us something! If we can shift into a space of welcoming the emotion, it will 1) pass sooner and 2) provide insight into our situation.
Secondly, if we accept that humans have a vast spectrum of feelings that provide opportunities through which we can thoroughly experience all that life offers, we can begin to move away from the mindset that we are feeling “the wrong things” or that we are in some way broken.
We are not broken.
We are human.
And so are our kids.
Every time a child cries, or shouts, or whines, or moan, or screams, or expresses an emotion in a manner that triggers us to react, it is an opportunity to teach them that feelings come and go and it’s hard but they will pass, which leads to healthy self-regulation. If we jump in to rescue every moment of sadness, or punish every angry outburst, we are communicating that feelings should be suppressed or avoided. Instead, holding space for a child through these periods of overwhelming feelings is the most effective way to support them in becoming mentally healthy adults.
Obviously, with big feelings comes big behaviours, and often these behaviours are disrespectful and socially unacceptable. So how do we make sure our children know that they are allowed to feel anything, and still provide effective discipline?
We don’t try to teach in the moment.
Children are only receptive to learning when they are regulated. When children (and adults!) are having a surge of emotions, the part of the brain that is responsible for logic and critical thinking is switched off. So even if we think we are being logical, we probably aren’t! And neither are our kids.
So first prize is to prepare children by setting boundaries while they are in a calm, connected state. This gives them an idea of what to expect in a given situation. Then, when they push that boundary (which they will—that’s their job!), we can respond with kind and firm limits. This models the behaviour that we expect from them; respect and calmness.
We also need to be upfront with the plan of action by telling our kids what we are going to do. So, when the child is calm and receptive, we can say, “I know that when you get angry, you begin to kick. I can’t let you kick me, so I am going to walk away from you. You can kick this ball/pillow/punching bag instead. I will return when you let me know that you are ready.”
We can also provide options for behaviours that are acceptable. Some ideas are:
Sad: Hugs, cuddling a stuffed pillow, spending time with a pet, listening to music, drawing, colouring, writing, being in nature, etc.
Angry: Screaming into pillows, hitting punching bags, kicking, throwing, or whacking balls, hitting a pole with a bat, ripping up paper, running as fast as possible, dancing, etc.
Anxious: Stuffed animal, favourite blanket, stress putty, finger painting, deep breaths, playing with water, etc.
If the child is too upset to engage in any of these behaviours, that’s ok too. This is where we hold space. We do not try to rush to “fix” the “bad” feeling. Using distractions, becoming the “cheerleader”, or punishing the behaviour communicates that the “bad” emotion must end as quickly as possible. If we gently accept the emotion, and wait for it to pass, we are communicating that there is nothing to be afraid of, that emotions are fleeting, and that we have faith in our children’s ability to handle what life throws at them.
Remember: we don’t need to make children feel bad to make them behave better!