Identify Feelings

HELPING CHILDREN TO IDENTIFY FEELINGS
& TO EXPRESS THEM APPROPRIATELY

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In our society, we have a love, hate relationship with feelings. Either we’re told to follow our feelings, to let our feelings drive our actions and intentions or we’re told that feelings are “bad” and that we’re “bad” for having them. Our language abounds with phrases like “go with your gut”, “follow your heart”, with rationalizations like “it doesn’t matter if he’s your sister’s husband, you love him – go for it”. The message there is that feelings are primary and we are slaves to them. Then, there is the antithetical message. In many households, children are not allowed to be angry, are not allowed to cry, are not permitted to be jealous. “You want to cry, I’ll give you something to cry about.” “How dare you be angry to your parents? Where would you be without us?” You have to love your brother. You can’t be jealous of him.”.

Thus we grow up, confused and desperate, acting-out are feelings, repressing them, hating ourselves for having them, not knowing what we feel or who we are.

What do children need to know about feelings? They need to know that it’s “normal” to have feelings, that as human beings we come equipped with a whole set of feelings-joy, surprise, relief, fear, anger, sadness, disappointment… and that all these feelings are “good”. Our job as parents is to help our children to identify feelings and “normalize” them. When Johnny says, “I hate grandpa. He’s not taking me to the baseball game.” An empathic parent responds. “You’re angry at grandpa and disappointed about the baseball game.” In one statement, the parent tells the child that he’s heard, that he’s understood and that his negative feelings are normal and acceptable. If Johnny’s statement is responded to with “Hush, we don’t hate our grandfathers” Johnny will learn that his feelings are bad, that he’s bad for having them. His self-esteem will plummet and, in the future, he may push away his feelings and become a robot person or push them away and explode when the pressure is unbearable or express them in illnesses or turn them against himself. A habitual identifying of feelings for children and empathically accepting their feelings will lead to more “real” human people and people with higher self-esteem. “You feel scared about going to a new school. Let’s talk about it.” “It’s hard to sleep when you’re so excited about your birthday party”. “You feel very sad that Jean isn’t your friend anymore”.

Many parents confuse having feelings with acting them out. Often, I have heard from parents. “If I let him be angry, he’ll hit his brother” – “If I let him be jealous, he’ll just steal the rich kid’s toys”. “If I let him cry, he’ll cry whenever he wants at weddings, in the supermarket, in school.”