According to psychologists, little children wake up in the middle of the night and go into their parent’s bedroom not to see whether the parents are there, but to see whether they are there. The repeatedness of this assures them of their existence. And this is how stories begin – ideas, beliefs, perceptions and understandings begin to form and shape within the walls of our physical bodies.
So the first thing to remember is that giving a child the silent treatment is a very unhealthy thing to do – because you are essentially telling the child that they don’t exist. It makes them feel unwanted, abandoned and worthless; and it essentially negates their state of being. This can have many negative effects in their adulthood – they can become people pleasers, insecure, form insecure attachments in their intimate relationships, have fears of abandonment, feel anxious, unworthy, and have low self-esteem and self-respect, become controlling, fear minded, or become so independent that they have trouble ever asking for help and support when they really need it. Whatever you do, please do your best not not give a child the silent treatment. It is emotionally immature to do so, and comes from a place within you that neglects your own feelings, and doesn’t know how to deal with emotions because you were never taught them in your own childhood – so practice self-compassion and invest some time learning about this and growing into self-awareness.
Another thing that is extremely damaging to do is to scream at your child. On some level it shows not only your own inability and immaturity to deal with your own emotions, but it shows that you are probably scared of emotions. Raising your voice at a child creates deep seated fear within them, paralyzes them, and alienates them from you, which may damage your relationship with them in the long run also. So any time they may need help or support, they may not even express this to you, as they may feel scared of how you’ll react. This creates fear in their adult relationships also, and suppresses their own unexpressed anger which stems from the feelings of powerlessness that they felt once upon a time when they were little children and you screamed at them – and they couldn’t do anything to protect themselves nor tell you how they hurt they felt.
One of the greatest spiritual lessons is understanding that each person does the best they can at each moment of their life.
What is important to remember is not to now feel ashamed, guilty or blame yourself, because we all make mistakes, even spiritual leaders and gurus make mistakes also. If you are now reading this and reflecting on your early childhood, remember that outside of their role as parents, they are also human beings and they did the best they could with what they knew. They had their own childhoods, their own struggles, and they could only give to you what they knew, what they had learned and had the tools for. Instead of holding grudges, have compassion. And realize that you are no longer a child, and you need to grow up and take responsibility of your own decisions and actions now. Blaming them for your own mistakes now as an adult is only limiting you in maturing and stepping into your power.
And if you are reading this as a parent, please practice self-compassion and forgiveness. If there is something to mend within your relationship with your now grown up children, or to apologize for, reach out to them and do so – and focus on building your beautiful and loving bond now, it is never too late. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you lose your cool during a tantrum with your little ones – but try to do better next time and learn and grow from your mistakes. Invest in your own health, wellness and wellbeing, because when we feel well we act better also – take walks outside in nature, and take care of yourself and your own emotions.
Little background, and the importance of listening to feelings:
According to Aletha Solter, Ph.D., and author of the parenting book Tears and Tantrums: What to do When Babies and Children Cry: “Boys and girls must be allowed to cry and rage. Otherwise, they harbor unresolved anger, resentments, frustrations, and fears they may act out as violence towards themselves and others.”
For previous generations, listening to children wasn’t a common practice and the science of attachment and developing the mind were not properly understood, so many of us were raised in families where our own feelings might have been suppressed with punishments, threats, ignoring or distraction. We often don’t realise this until we have our own children and suddenly find listening to tears, sadness, frustration, conflict, tantrums and anger so incredibly hard.
Listening to our child’s big feelings can feel alien, foreign, uncomfortable, and even unbearable at times. It takes practice to be comfortable sitting with their feelings and our own.
It takes high reserves and continuous amounts of self-compassion and forgiveness in heated moments to remain balanced, and you won’t always have the capacity to listen – that’s okay. No one can be calm and present all the time. However – when we learn to feel our own feelings and emotions, we can build within us the capacity to listen to others’, which helps our overall health and wellbeing.
It also helps our children to feel safe, seen, soothed and secure – all of which are foundational components of building secure attachments in their adult relationships and friendships. Children who develop secure attachments tend to be grow up happier, kinder, more fulfilled and more trusting of others, and they have better relationships with parents, siblings, friends and intimate partners throughout their life.
How to listen to the feelings:
So the first thing we need to know about feelings is: listening and being present, being as calm as you possibly can.
It is also important to name the emotion that your child is experiencing so that it knows what it is.
Because – learning to name our feelings is one of the first key ways to feel our feelings and have greater ability to navigate through and balance out emotions in our life. A child doesn’t know what is happening – and they find themselves in the midst of turbulence of emotions as if they are without any control in the powerful ways of the oceans feeling like they are drowning.
Let’s say your child is throwing a tantrum being angry. What you need to say as calmly as possible is: “I can see that you are feeling angry.”
Notice that what we are saying is “feeling angry” rather than “are angry” – so that the child knows not to identify with the emotion, but that it is something part of its experience and will move away just as easily.
This allows them to keep some space between identity and emotion – and learn the healthy way of feeling their feelings. This way when they grow up they will not have identity boxes in their minds believing that “I am anger, I am sadness, I am disappointment.”
It is important to stay present with their feelings and emotions, so that they don’t learn shame and guilt, and that they learn that feeling emotions is not “bad” because there are no “bad emotions” – but we need to learn to express them in a healthy way.
Suppressing emotions that are often labelled as bad such as anger can have serious consequences. Let your child express its “negative emotions” – without putting labels onto them such as “bad” or “good” Children need the freedom and ability to express how they feel for their healthy development – and they need to express anger so that they are free from it.
According to Freud, suppressing anger often leads to depression. Anger is often times self-protection against hurt and pain. As a parent, it is important to understand what has hurt your child, and what you might have done that it feels unloved by you or threatened. You need to uncover what is beneath the anger, and the situation that gave it rise, so that you can settle into peace the connection between you, and help your child. And again – no matter how uncomfortable, stay gentle and calm, speak softly, and do not look away or walk away.
Let’s say that the child begins calling you names and saying things like: “I hate you! You are horrible!” Once you hear that, it is important to bring back the attention to the emotion itself, so that the communication begins and the child can understand its feelings better and why it feels what it feels.
So saying something like: “I can see that you are feeling angry or disappointed, because we are leaving the playground, or because he took away your toy, but it’s not good to say such things (referring to calling you horrible or that they hate you).”
Bring your own attention back to the root of the problem, and not the secondary expression of it through the emotion of anger. Again, I repeat, anger and tantrums are just self-defense and protection mechanisms against the pain a child feels, or has experienced, or stemming from feelings of powerlessness due to a particular situation – and it is important to approach this from an empathic perspective, and help soothe them in these moments – through healthy and compassionate communication.
If your child is throwing a tantrum because they are late to school because of their own fault and lack of being prepared on time, and yet blaming you and calling you “a bad parent” that they are late or saying “you are horrible” – don’t let them escape self-responsibility, and bring their attention back on feeling their feelings and dealing with their feelings to express them in healthier ways, while also learning to be self-accountable. Help them learn how to deal with the situation and fix the problem with their lateness rather than attacking other people. It is important for children to learn self-responsibility and have some discipline as this will help them in the future also.
You can read more in my article Understanding Your Child’s Behaviour.
How to feel your feelings:
Now let’s dive deeper and unfold this step by step. To be better able to listen to our child’s feelings, we need to know and learn how to feel our own feelings.
The first thing to know about feelings versus emotions is that feelings are pure like water. There is no good or bad, all are just like sensations that arise within us like waves, they rise and then fall, change shape and dissolve; their purpose often is to shine a light on what feels safe or what doesn’t – which is what guides us as children: is this food something I want to eat, is this situation safe for me, etc.
When we put water in a cup and we begin boiling it, we can then put some chamomile tea leaves, and what we’ll then get is chamomile tea. The tea leaves are our thoughts, and the tea that becomes of it is our emotions. So our emotions are essentially when we think our feelings. Depending on the thoughts we attach to them, which usually depends on past experiences that we associate with these feelings, this is the flavoured emotions we’ll get.
So let’s say someone says, “we need to talk tonight”; if you’ve had experiences of this meaning something bad will be talked about, or your current mood and day are going stressful, the emotion that arises will be fear or worry. If on the other hand, you are in a romantic mood, or the tone of voice reminds you of something pleasant from the past somehow, the emotion will be excitement. In this way, we can also do a bit of reverse engineering, and by placing ourselves in things that put us in pleasant emotional states, such as certain songs or music or actions, we will arise within us positive thoughts, and another state of mind.
Emotions are too neither good nor bad – they all carry messages about our state of mind and where we are in our life. So once we learn to listen to them, and listen to the message it is giving us, we’ll know whether anger arises because our boundaries have been crossed, or we need to change the environment, or because a sadness has been within us for too long is now seeking our attention to be held with compassion and acknowledged to be released.
Now let’s go over the steps on how to feel our feelings.
1. Something arises, perhaps unpleasant, scary or overwhelming.
2. Your mind starts rationalizing or taking out past experiences from the dusty archives on our minds, making up a whole new monster of the story and subconscious programming you’ve had. Your mind launches whatever inner story accompanies this feeling from past experiences and old wounds and comes up with its corresponding rational, “I’m unlovable, I’m a failure, there is something wrong with me, I’m unworthy, I’m an idiot”. This is where you STOP because you are thinking your feelings, not feeling them.
The only thing wrong with feeling intense emotions is the associated guilt, shame and self-blame from feeling them.
3. Redirect your mind away from these thoughts and into the sensations in your body. To feel your feelings, you need to feel them not think them. First, name the feeling as it needs to be acknowledged, for example, is it anger?
Then name it by saying, “I feel angry”. Don’t say “I am angry”, so that you are not subconsciously identifying with it. And then focus on the sensations in your body: Where in the body do you feel this? How does this feel in my body, where do I feel this in my body? How does anger feel like, how does sadness feel like? Does your chest contract, is your stomach in a knot, etc.?
4. Now breathe into this feeling and sensation, and allow it the freedom to just stay like that a little bit – keep focusing on the breathing and the body, on each part of your body. And if you need to cry, just cry and let it release itself. It will feel out of control, because emotions are like waves – but most turbulence only happens at the surface. Then, the deeper we go into the water, eventually things are calmer and peaceful – and clarity sets in.
5. Your mind will resist this, it will want to keep pushing you to think and then attach a story to the feeling, because that’s just how our mind works. It is safety mechanism and coping mechanism for all the way back in childhood when it needed stories to make sense of the world. So the mind always goes back to a thought-story mode. Keep redirecting your focus and awareness back into your body.
6. Breathe deeply and keeping feeling back into the body. Feeling leave us like waves, because they are water – so it will pass. Observe it changing shape, watch it move and flow, and become a calmer wave.
Nurturing a healthy environment at home
In our modern day there is a lot of social media and internet usage – which essentially creates an overstimulation to the mind, and to a child’s mind this becomes even more stressful, because there is just too much information which further burdens the nervous system.
Today’s youth also often focuses more on the external world – taking selfies, posting great things online to show their perfect life – and this comes at the expense of nurturing their inner world. Sometimes it is not even about having a good time with “friends” or at events, but it is about the picture and “how cool others will perceive me”. It is about looking good, rather than feeling good.
Our external world is an extension of our inner world, so it is important to create for them a space within the house and within our relationship that is authentic, honest, open, warm and nurturing – and encourage in them virtues and good self-esteem, in addition to feeling their feelings and building the richness of their inner world.
This means: spending time with them, reading them stories at night, playing and being in nature, and having open communication where we get curious about their inner worlds, visions and dreams. It is also about creating a safe and stable environment at home, where they feel comfort, nurturing and freedom to be who they are.
Try not to have loud sounds and noise in the house all the time, because this will stress them out and destabilize their nervous system; and try to have live plants or flowers, and even wooden furniture and beautiful art to create a more peaceful and calm ambiance.
Stability is important to a child – and this isn’t just physical stability, it is emotional stability that is most important i.e. you need to work on being more emotionally mature and show them consistent and stable way of affection, so that they don’t fear inconsistency in your reactions and hugs etc.
To guide and teach on how to make authentic, loving and supportive friendships in their own lives as they grow older, we also need to encourage them to look away from the screens, and focus on the real life. The best way to help them be able to build friendships is to model for them what that means – because children learn through observing you. Of course they should also know how to be emotionally mature, which is why learning healthy ways of feeling their feelings is so important – and impacts their entire lives. Emotional maturity and emotional intelligence are perhaps the most crucial for both our wellbing and success in life.
It is also important to keep mindful of what they watch online. It is so stressful to kids nowadays, my heart just really feels for them. Constant comparisons, and all this influencer mania is just ridiculous. So many children now suffer with their mental health, and with low self-image, lack of confidence, low self-esteem and self-respect and feeling unlovable and unworthy and never good enough. Gossiping in itself can be very deeply emotionally wounding; as well as humiliation and neglect.
Statistics show that being exposed to images of violence in media and online contributes to increases of stress, anxiety and fear, as well as inability sleeping, apathy, emotional numbness, and increases one own’s tendency to think and act in aggressive ways towards both self and others. It is important to expose children to positive images, reading stories, spending time in nature, and building within them, as well as modelling to them, virtues of compassion, kindness, patience, tenderness and caring understanding.
Children do not have the mental capacity nor ability to dissect and absorb complex information nor to take in too much information – so don’t over-complicate things, and keep the boundaries clear because they’ll just get confused otherwise. Too much information or you explaining complex things to them about the world and psychology etc. – will not help them understand you – it will paralyze them. Be mindful of that. Until the age of seven, keep things clear and simple, and focus on developing their emotional world – which will then set the solid foundation when they begin to develop their intellect and mental bodies.
There is only so much we can do as parents, and even if we were perfect and never made any mistakes – which by the way is impossible and that’s okay – we’ll still not be able to protect our little ones from the world, from tears and pain and disappointment. But the best thing we can do is give them that space and open bridge to us that when they feel sad or hurt or confused or lost, they can trust us enough to come and ask for help or just to share how they feel without hesitation or fear that we’ll look away or react negatively.
Whether you are reading this as a parent or a grown up child, it is important to remember compassion. Outside of their role as parents, our parents are only human. And they were children like us once too – with their own needs, inner worlds and challenges. They did the best they could for us with what they knew and were taught, so forgive them and hold compassion in your hearts and gestures towards them.
And if you are here as a parent, don’t be too hard on yourself – we all make mistakes, no one is perfect, and no family will ever be perfect. Remember that children are our teachers – so naturally, and purposefully, there will be misunderstandings, so that we ourselves become more self-aware.
Often times, our own subconscious desires are expressed through our children. Perhaps as a child yourself, your own individuality wasn’t as accepted in your household or school environment, and you now have a very independent and individualistic child.
This is an opportunity to reflect on yourself, rather than continue to suppress that side of you which was once not as wholly held. Through embracing the moments of our children’s unique worlds, we are essentially embracing the wholeness that we are in our own unique physical, emotional and spiritual wild lands of our self.
Every day is a new day, a new opportunity, and we all do the best we can. Together, with patience and with love, all will be okay.
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The beautiful watercolour paintings in this article are by Bulgarian artist Boyana Petkova.