Safe to say, the inability to handle emotional distress is widespread enough to consider it a national pandemic.
The pandemic is connected to anxious ways we have learned to avoid, deny or strongly react to emotions that are uncomfortable or painful.
We learn these desperate ways of dealing with painful emotions in childhood and carry them into our relationships in adulthood. Whether our primary response to distress is a strategy that activates overwhelm, angry outbursts or emotional shutdown, all of these cause reactivity in us that unnecessarily activates our body’s survival system.
This pandemic is related to cultural mores that overall relegate painful emotions as signs of weaknesses, inferiority or defect that need to be fixed, ignored or even eliminated.
To complicate matters, some of these teachings consist of gender taboos; some emotions are considered unmanly for men to express, and other emotions too manly for women. For example, in general, emotions of vulnerability, such as pain, hurt or fear, are emotional taboos that “real” men are expected to shun, whereas emotions associated with authority and strength, such as anger or confidence, are emotional taboos for “good” women.
Punitive versus accepting views of handling emotions
We are socialized into a value system that idealizes force and shaming in childhood. Wittingly or unwittingly, this learned inability to regulate affect, and upsetting emotions in particular, speaks to a value system that supports the use punitive ways of teaching children to cooperate has been passed down from one generation to the next.
Studies show a majority of parents in the U.S. consider spanking to be ‘necessary’ in socializing children to obey authorities.
A plethora of evidence shows spanking is ineffective and dangerous however; for example, parents who believe these tactics are more likely to:
Other findings link parent reactivity increases children’s stress and emotional dysregulation as well as problem behaviors.
Among other effects, this value system teaches beliefs that inhibit the formation of healthy, emotionally present relationships. For example, it:
When these do not work, and they often do not, a parent is more likely to intensify force and frequency, and interpret a child’s disobedience personally, which puts children at risk. Alvin Pousaint, M.D., states that:
In The Case Against Spanking, by Irwin A. Hyman, director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives, also makes clear the connection between spanking and rates of child abuse. Citing Sweden, a country that made spanking illegal in 1979, he notes, “In 1981, only 26 percent of parents supported spanking. The support rate is currently less than 11 percent… [and] Sweden went from a family violence-related child death rate of 18 percent in 1970 to 0 percent in recent years.”
Sadly, despite a plethora of evidence that spanking children is harmful, and positive outcome findings in more than a dozen European countries that legally banned spanking in the last decades, a majority of parents in the U.S. continue to believe in practices that, essentially, not only block them from learning how to regulate their own upsetting emotions, but also prevent their children from learning how to self-regulate.
Most of us have had one or more parents in childhood who didn’t know how to regulate their own affect during upsets, as evidenced by angry outbursts or withdrawal.
To make things worse, our parents often took action to prevent or control us (and/or spouse) from feeling certain feelings that caused them distress. More often this involved the use of punitive tactics (i.e., shame, guilt, intimidation) to silence, eliminate or dismiss, and in general shut down upsetting emotions.
What happens to a small, crying child who is dismissed or told to “shut up or else” or “stop acting like a baby” however? If they’re healthy, they will start to cry uncontrollably.
Why is this a healthy response (in most situations)? It is healthy as it provides useful feedback to the parent (if only the parent were emotionally present). If the parent were emotionally tuned in, they would more likely:
Perhaps more importantly, the parent would see they missed an opportunity to teach their child how to regulate their feelings, and “self-soothe” — by their own effectiveness in doing so.
Affect and the parent-child connection
Starting in infancy, learning how to regulate affect in response to stress is critical to our health and development. Without this ability, our ego-strength lacks the resiliency needed to face day to day challenges or difficult events.
A small child’s brain is attuned to their parent’s level of anxiety, and thus their sense of security can be shaken to the extent their parent’s at any given moment. By nature a child’s survival is completely dependent on the parent’s ability to care for and protect them. This perhaps explains why it is common for at least one of the children of a distressed parent to react to their own distress by taking on the role of parent.
Though uncomfortable or painful, feelings of anxiety or sadness, are only unhealthy when their intensity rises to levels that overwhelm the brain and body’s autonomic nervous system. In fact, like other painful emotions, they are vital messages from your body that, in some way or another, let you know (by activating core fears of rejection, abandonment, etc.) where you are in terms of your inner emotional drives to live a fulfilling life, i.e., to meaningfully connect, to contribute, to matter in relation to life and others, and so on.
These are universal drives. They are hardwired, and shape most every human behavior.
Like needs for sustenance, however, children are also dependent on caregivers for emotional needs. Recent findings on the brain and attachment show a young child’s brain depends on caregivers’ brains to learn how to self-regulate. Human brains are designed to learn and change, and wire and re-wire one another in relational contexts. And, emotions are the meaning-laden language that connects and forms a child’s relationships with key others.
Without question, a parent’s ability to regulate their own emotions, in other words, to remain relatively calm, confident and present, particularly in emotionally challenging situations, is not only the best way parents can teach children to soothe themselves (and to be soothed by others) during upsets, but also the most effective way parents can heal themselves (and own ability to change/replace toxic behaviors with life enriching ones).
Clinical studies show, for example, that secure attachments are a primary defense against emotional problems in response to life stressors, big and small, whereas attachment disorders can be antecedents to antisocial patterns even violence.
Children who experience a secure base with an emotionally available parent are more likely:
Emotions are the language of the body. A parent cannot teach a child to regulate what a parent hasn’t learned. A child does not do what a parent says, and rather what a parent does.
Simply put, parents set the example by their own emotional responses. Conceivably, a parent’s healing is prerequisite to teaching their children to be open to healthy growth and positive change.
The solution? Emotionally present parenting.
Parenting is arguably the most challenging job in the world.
Believe it or not, parenting is mostly about you.
Perhaps no task is more important in parenting than your learning how to handle your most upsetting emotions, so you can then teach this invaluable skill to your children. (Studies also show incorporating “social and emotional skills” in schools reduces violence and improves academic performance.)
The ability to regulate painful emotions is one that allows us to deal with stressors, and feel upsetting emotions, without getting triggered or activating our defenses. Emotion dysregulation is a problem related to a learned inability to understand, utilize or benefit from the emotional signals and sensations our body is sending.
Wittingly or unwittingly, a value system that supports the use punitive ways of relating to ourselves and children gets passed down from one generation to the next.
As a parent, you can give your child a new legacy. Here are a few tips:
Last but not least, fully accept and love yourself. Your love for yourself as a person might be one of the most essential ways of telling your children you love them (and free them to love and accept themselves).
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Last reviewed: 13 Jan 2013