To encourage your child to share feelings with you, share yours
Talking about feelings with your child sounds easy to many, but it’s not easy for everyone. After all, many of us had parents who didn’t discuss them, reacted strongly to them, acted them out, denied them, numbed them (drugs, alcohol, food, etc.), and the list goes on. Learning to share your feelings, however, is the key to offering the tools and permission for your child to share feelings.
Talking about feelings with your child requires four things.
- Emotional literacy.
- Awareness of your authentic feeling.
- Integration of thinking and feeling.
Before I discuss the four elements above, it is important to limit the sharing to age-appropriate information and to take responsibility for your feelings. Out of awareness, parents may invite their child to help them feel better, or become the caretaker. That isn’t helpful. In fact, it is often hurtful. What is helpful is taking responsible for your feelings. Let your child know you can handle your feelings. Even if you don’t know how. Try saying, “I am not sure how I will get through this sadness, but I know I will.” This builds a sense of trust. It also models taking responsibility for feelings.
It is hard to talk about feelings without first identifying them and then labeling them. The basic feelings are sad, mad, glad, and scared. Keep the words simple. The younger the child, the simpler the words. “I feel sad,” instead of, “I’m experiencing a sense of loss around …”
There is a lot more to emotional literacy. This is a brief introduction. If you don’t know what you feel, feel numb, or don’t have the words to describe what you are feeling, find the support you need to develop emotional literacy. Emotional literacy is key to your wellness and in many cases success. It is certainly key to parenting. And your child’s social and emotional wellness is a bigger predictor of success than intelligence.
Awareness of Your Authentic Feeling
In general feelings can be authentic feelings or racket feelings. We learn to feel racket feelings when our authentic feelings were discouraged growing up. You may have learned to cover anger with sadness or vice versa. Racket feelings come easily. They are our “go-to” emotions. There are two cues that you might be in a racket feeling. One is when you are feeling a commonly felt feeling. You or those around you might think, “This again? Why do I always feel so mad?” Another is when you the feeling is inappropriately intense. For example, seeing a cereal bowl left out and “exploding” with anger.
When experiencing a racket feeling, take the time to think about what you are feeling. You might even say that out loud and share that internal reflection with your child. “I am going to take the time to think about what I am feeling.”
Then, ask yourself what you might be feeling underneath. When you discover that, share both feelings with your child. Sharing both helps explain what they are seeing behaviorally in you (racket) and what they are intuitively picking up (authentic). For example, say, “On the surface, I felt mad because you ran into the street. Underneath, I felt scared because I thought you might have gotten hurt.”
The authentic feeling will help you problem solve. In the scenario above, would the problem be that you want your child to behave so you don’t feel mad? Or is it that you want them to learn to make safe choices to stay alive? Sharing your scare will help them think about the consequences of their choices. You can share that you were scared because you would feel sad if anything happened to them. That affirms their worth and value to you.
The Integration of Thinking and Feeling
You can think and feel at the same time. You can take the time to put a feeling with your thoughts. You can take the time to think about what you are feeling. The more you engage both thinking and feeling, the easier it will become to put the subjective experience of emotions into words.
Modeling how to think and feel at the same time invites your child to do the same. This helps your child share their feelings by showing them how it’s done.
To the extent we don’t talk out our feelings, we act them out. Acting out emotions does not solve problems. We can hit, we can scream, we can eat, we can drink, we can retreat, we can shop, etc., but those activities will not solve our problem. Feelings motivate us to meet our wants and needs. Rather than acting out feelings, take the time to think about what you want and need. Then ask for that. Or take the action to get it yourself.
What you do to contain your emotion and bring in your thinking is your self-regulation. Sometimes, it is taking deep breaths, stepping outside, reading a book, soaking in a bath, etc. If you react rather than respond to emotions, develop your self-regulation skills. Then, help your child learn to do the same (in his unique way).
Practice Aggressive Wellness
This isn’t one of the four elements mentioned above, but it comes down to living aggressively well. Emotional wellness is a pillar to overall wellness. Actively promote your emotional and overall health by taking care of yourself. Don’t let yourself get depleted. I know how hard it can be as parents to hold the boundaries around the things we do for ourselves. Yet, it is important to live aggressively well.
Feeling Together Takeaway & Tip
When children see feelings as tools to meet their wants and needs, they will want to share their feelings.
You and your child can feel differently. Let your child feel authentically, even if the feeling is different from yours.
Family & Child Therapy
In some cases, family therapy, play therapy, or parent-child play therapy can be helpful. Consider scheduling an appointment. To learn more about Dr. Keller’s family therapy, play therapy services, or online Aggressive Wellness series, visit Southeast Institute for Group and Family Therapy or call (919) 929-1171.