Ship's InstrumentsCreative Commons License Garry Knight via Compfight

Whether we acknowledge them or we don’t our emotions are happening all the time! Our lives are so much easier if we learn to read them for ourselves and our children.

The vitality of our children depends on our ability as parents to regulate their emotions. We do children an invaluable service if, along with the many other things we teach them, we enable them to recognize, express, and manage their own emotions. When we develop ways of working with emotions and communicating effectively about them as a family, we do a great deal to streamline and harmonize our functioning together.

Emotions are puzzling both to children and adults. In many ways they are our barometers to the world around us. They let us know when a storm is coming. They alert us to danger. They allow us to fall in love. Emotions are vital to what we do and who we are, but too often they are sorely neglected. We may fail to acknowledge they exist or even criticize others when they attempt to express them. I have treated countless patients whose emotions are of no use to them. They are unable to recognize emotions in themselves and are greatly limited in their ability to be empathic to others. They may have suffered trauma and may even be able to talk about it. But they don’t know what they feel. They may fear that their emotions will get out of control and that they will act in ways that could harm them or someone else. Yet their faces are masks of unresponsiveness.

How do we teach our children about emotion? First off, we must be able to recognize and evaluate the emotions we observe in the multitude of examples around us. When Aaron was about six weeks old, I proudly took him to the Veterans’ Hospital where I worked so that my co-workers could meet him. There was a dear lady there who worked in maintenance. Her warm personality and ribald humor made her a favorite with everyone in the hospital. She loved Aaron immediately and wanted to hold him. She began talking to him, and soon he started crying and then screaming as if in pain. I couldn’t comfort him or get him to stop. I had a hunch about what was wrong, but I made the excuse that he was very tired. He stopped crying as soon as I took him away. I spoke softly to him, and he quickly fell asleep. I am quite sure that he was reacting to my friend’s unusually loud voice and her way of speaking very close to his face.

One day a college friend and her husband came to visit with their small daughter and ten- month-old son. She was carrying the little boy in her arms. He was trying to get away, kicking and crying. In short, he was “a handful.” My friend greeted me and then, without apology, carried the little boy away from the group and into another room. I watched in admiration as she talked quietly to him, explaining the strange surroundings and encouraging him to look at things that might be fun and familiar to him. She waited patiently with him until his fears subsided.

When Danny was about three years old, he was the youngest of the neighborhood “gang” that played together. One day they gathered in our kitchen, and, Kirk, who was about five and definitely one of the “coolest” of the group, announced that he was having a birthday party. Aaron and Matt, aged seven and five, were both invited, but Danny was not. “Sorry, Danny,” Kirk said. I said nothing but soon Danny came over, wrapped his arms around my leg and thumped his head against it in despair. He didn’t cry or say anything. I might have missed that subtle movement, but, as luck would have it, I didn’t. I bent down to hug him, and we went off to build with Legos, one of his favorite activities.

Here’s another scenario—something we have all likely encountered. A parent and child are walking in the mall. The child is crying, obviously exhausted and overwhelmed beyond his capacity to cope. The parent reacts by shouting at the child to stop or, in the worst case, hits the child. The parent’s unrestrained emotions mingle with the child’s until both are out of control and utterly frustrated. These situations have certainly happened to all parents. What is important to remember is that if both parent and child are out of control, we as parents should not press toward a moral victory. We may be bigger and able to yell louder, but whatever moral principle we are trying to get across will be lost. The only message they will remember is that it’s okay for everyone to be out of control, which is certainly not the message we want to convey.