Your parents are the first people to teach you about emotions. They reflect back what you’re feeling and identify those feelings back to you. When you’re two years old, and you’re angry, your parent should state, “I see that you’re feeling angry.” They identify your feelings and respond appropriately. Of course, all this takes place in a parent who is emotionally healthy themselves.
In Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect by Dr. Jonice Webb she states three essential emotional skills that parents need to have to teach their children about their own emotions. The three essential skills are:
- The parent feels an emotional connection to the child.
- The parent pays attention to the child and sees him as a unique and separate person, rather than, say, an extension of him or herself; a possession or burden.
- Using that emotional connection and paying attention, the parent responds completely to the child’s emotional need (pg. 6).
I’m not convinced emotional neglect results in a different outcome than emotional abuse. The only difference between emotional neglect and emotional abuse that I can decipher is that emotionally neglected children are not physically or sexually abused whereas emotional abuse is inherently connected to physical and/or sexual abuse.
Emotional neglect happens…
…when parents are not attuned to their child’s emotions. Therefore, emotionally neglectful parents do not respond appropriately to help their children emotionally which leaves the child ill-equipped to handle their emotions in adulthood.
Adults end up depressed or anxious for no apparent reason because on the outside they had a good childhood with loving parents, a home, and creature comforts. They can’t think of why they feel the way they do or why they lack motivation or direction because they know their parent(s) loves them and they had a good childhood by most people’s standards. They just have this emptiness inside and feel like they don’t have a place in the world. They’re on the outside looking in, and they can’t figure out what’s wrong.
What’s wrong is that children who are emotionally neglected or abused never learn how to express or identify their emotions. Because their emotions were rarely acknowledged or completely responded to by their parents or other adults. Children who were emotionally neglected or abused were never taught the emotional skills needed to have a healthy relationship with another adult. The emotional neglect and abuse will likely repeat itself because it’s known and comfortable. Each generation will get worse as the locked up emotions manifest into anger to be released on the next generation. The way emotions are handled and discussed are normal within the family, and the child begins to feel that there is something wrong with them because they feel differently than their parents.
Taking Responsibility for your feelings
Here’s the thing, for parents to acknowledge an emotion in their child, they have to feel that emotion themselves and possibly take responsibility for creating that emotion in their child. One of the hardest things I have to do as a parent is acknowledge my daughter’s anger when I know I am the cause. I hate it. I don’t want her angry with me. However, I also don’t want her to grow-up,
- Not knowing who she is or
- Hiding from problems or
- Unable to prioritize activities or
- Be undependable or
- Lack attention to detail.
She needs to learn those things. And by having structure, consistency, and emotionally attuned feedback she’ll learn them in a healthy and loving way. She needs to know that sometimes you have to do things that you don’t want to do because that is a part of life, no matter how old you are. I say things like, “I get that you’re angry because you don’t want to come in and take a shower because you’re having fun, however, you have school tomorrow, and you need to take a shower and start winding down for bed.” She may grumble and say that it isn’t fair or that she doesn’t care about school tomorrow, which is fine. But it doesn’t change the fact that she has to come in and take a shower to start winding down for bed. Normally after her shower, we can talk a little more about how she is feeling, and I may even get, “I know you’re right, Mom. I don’t want to be tired in the morning.” I cherish those moments because I feel like she gets it plus, I like hearing I’m right. Now, when she’s still angry when she gets out of the shower, I know there are deeper things going on that need to be uncovered, and it’s my job as her parent to help her identify those feelings and work through them.
Emotional parenting is exhausting because not only do you have to be attuned to your child, you have to be in-tune with yourself.
I also have to be prepared for the day when she stands her ground and says, “No, I’m not going in to take a shower because I want to keep playing.” Defiance tells me that she’s ready for more responsibility and I have to relinquish my control. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I still have to let her try. I’m ready for the day she defies me to come in to shower because that means she is ready to get herself up for school the next day and I get some of my freedom as an adult back.
Because every action has a consequence whether it is a change in circumstance or a reaction from the other person. If she feels she can pick her bedtime and come in when she’s ready, then she can get herself up; going to bed when you want when you have to be up at a certain time is a part of adulthood and childhood is when you learn how to do it. Of course, I will tell her this when she awaits my reaction to her defiance and she will then make a choice to come in now and shower or do it when she’s ready.
After school, we’ll debrief about what happened the night before and how her morning went. Based on what she learned, we’ll adjust. I may go back to getting her up, or I may be free in the morning. I also have to express to her what I learned about the experience. We’ll talk about how we each felt when she defied me and how we each felt with the dramatic change in the morning. Teaching her how to listen to other people’s feelings is just as important as teaching her how to express her feelings. A relationship is 50% you and 50% the other person. She needs to know how her actions made me feel just as much as I need to know how my actions made her feel; this is how you learn how to communicate about how you’re feeling.
Communicating how you feel
Learning how to communicate your emotions with another person is essential for a healthy relationship. Communication means talking about, listening to, and comprehending what is being said plus, giving a reply when appropriate. If I only taught Grace how to talk about her emotions, she’ll never learn how her actions impact the other person, and she’ll probably think the other person’s emotions don’t matter because I never brought up my emotions.
I’m her first relationship, and I’m charged with teaching her how to function within a relationship. And sometimes, you have to talk about things that make you feel uncomfortable or may hurt the other person’s feelings. Since I am her mom, I’m a safe person to practice on. When she says hurtful things to me, then we have to talk about her delivery or her timing, and the same goes when I say hurtful things to her. We are both human, make mistakes, get exasperated, and annoyed with each other; as long as we acknowledge our impact on the other plus, show each other dignity and respect, we can work through anything.
I’m a very involved parent, but according to Grace, she has the most freedom of her friends and classmates. I let her make a lot of her own decisions to learn from the consequences of her actions. I can only tell and show her so much, some things she has to learn for herself and now is the time to do it. It’s a lot of work and it takes up a lot of my time, but I don’t want her to end up not knowing how to communicate how she feels or not knowing what she is feeling and why. I’ve spent my adulthood learning how to identify and communicate my emotions because of neglect and abuse; I don’t want her to have to do the same thing.
I’m teaching her now what I started learning when I was a teen.
I’m teaching her:
- How to go through her emotions layer-by-layer by talking and journaling;
- How to forward think to avoid and anticipate problems;
- How to own her emotions when she would rather blame them on someone else;
- How to be empathetic; and
- How to problem solve.
I teach her by example because I believe being the example is the best way to teach.