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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Embracing feelings and teaching positive expression


One of the greatest aspects of being human is the myriad emotions we have. So why is it that so many of us smother our anager, sadness, jealousy, etc? As children, many of us were scolded for displays of anger. Though we were only reacting to our frustrations, rather than teach us to acknowledge our emotions or even to embrace them as signals of our true self, our guardians would react to our expressions with like anger.

I think this cycle, this perpetuated hiding of emotions and feelings is dangerous. Adults who as children were not carefully and lovingly taught to be aware of and acknowlege their feelings are, as adults, often unable to see beyond their reactions to stimuli, and tend to either overreact with paroxysms, lashing out at those they say they love, or not react at all, perhaps out of fear.

We parents have the opportunity not only to teach our kids about feelings and how to identify them. We can learn, too. Since deep inside of each of us is a bundle of complex emotions, often confused, desperate to get out, but afraid of the reactions we'll cause in people. Sharing emotions is a frightening thing to do most of the time. That can be made worse by shutting down the expressions of those we love.

By being aware of our own boundaries and learning to share them with those around us, we can begin to guide our child by not attaching our own negative reactions to their feelings. Allowing the expressions, the feelings of our children out into the open is an important step to open communication.

Next comes guiding the mode of the expression. I find that with my daughter, her feelings sometimes come out as negative conversation, particularly when she's tired. If she's frustrated with being out shopping, she may tell me she doesn't like clothes we're trying on, regardless of whether or not she does. She might look at someone and flat out say that she doesn't like them, even though she doesn't know the person. These comments are entirely out of character with her typically positive nature. And although she's tired/hungry - those aren't the feelings. A tired person needs sleep. A hungry person needs food. But the feeling inside - frustration, anger, sorrow - is what must be addressed. Negative feelings that go unaddressed lead to negative behaviour patterns, which later in life become exacerbated with time and hurt and negative reactions from those around us.

Learning to acknowledge the feelings that churn inside us is the first step to self awareness. When negative expressions of feelings come up with Maia, I use boundaries as much as possible to communicate that the way she's expressing herself is or might be hurtful. I think it really important that the feelings themselves are always shown to be wonderful, though the method of sharing them needs addressing. So the anger, jealousy, resentment, sadness and so on, needs to be addressed, as well as the mode of expression of that feeling. I don't presume to know always the feeling behind the expression of the feeling. For example, if a child calls another child a name -- minor infraction though it may be, I believe it needs addressing.

Children with little guidance in the realm of feelings will have difficulty expressing how they feel in an instance like this. Instead they will assign blame. "She won't play with me", "He keeps taking my truck" and so on. Kids who have been taught to identify feelings first will begin with the feeling. "He hurt my feelings", ie. "I feel hurt/angry/sad", etc.

To people out there who think this is all just a bunch of sissy bullshit and a waste of time, I have an observation. Parents of children who are emotionally intelligent spend a great deal less of their time struggling with their children, less time disciplining them and more quality time with them. Why? Because children who have been taught to acknowledge their feelings, that their feelings are important and to respect the feelings of others of their own volition are self guiding children. Kids whose feelings are left up to their own governance are, well, a lot like the kids in The Lord of the Flies. Nuts.

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