In the beginning, fostering healthy emotional development for our children means listening and trying to decipher our babies’ cries rather than immediately suppressing or ignoring them. It means that throughout childhood, anger, grief and sadness are acceptable feelings for our children to express anytime anywhere (although never in a destructive or unsafe manner). Granting our children this freedom to be their whole selves — unconditional acceptance — will lead to far fewer enraged or depressed adults in the future.
I write about this subject so often I feel like a broken record, but since this aspect of child care is both a) the most important, and b) the most intensely challenging, here I am at it again sharing two crucial ways we nurture and promote emotional health:
1. Letting our children’s feelings flow
A supportive, bring-it-on attitude toward our children’s emotions, which ideally begins the moment they are born (rather than at some ambiguous time after the first year as several experts imply), encourages open communication and fosters authenticity. When we allow feelings to be released and cleared in a healthy manner, we send our kids vital messages like:
It’s okay to be mad, sad, frustrated, etc. Your feelings (and therefore you) are totally acceptable and valid.
You are capable of handling strong emotions with my support and expressing them appropriately. You can cope with age appropriate frustration, disappointment, etc.
Share with me. I want to know and understand you.
You are safe — cared for by a strong, confident and capable leader who can witness your most difficult emotions.
However, since our children’s feelings trigger our own, there is nothing easy about allowing our children to let them flow. For most of us it takes a daily, sometimes hourly, at times moment-to-moment commitment. As Magda Gerber noted, “Nothing really prepares you to experience your own feelings of empathy, irritability, helplessness or maybe even rage when you hear your baby cry.”
Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to gauge whether we’re on the right track:
Is my attitude toward my baby’s fussing or crying one of curiosity rather than impatience and assumption?
When in doubt, am I dialoguing with my baby in order to be as accurate as possible? “Hmmm…you just ate and burped, but you still seem uncomfortable. I’m wondering if you still have a gas bubble. I’ll try gently massaging your tummy.”
Am I soothing my baby by understanding and meeting her needs, or shushing, jiggling and stifling her because I want the crying to stop?
Why the emphasis on beginning this approach in infancy? Infancy is a powerful time. Every interaction we have with our babies begins patterns for both of us. We can always get on track later, but the longer we wait, the harder it is to make the adjustment to calm acceptance of our child’s feelings. It’s harder for children, too, who may have already become less inclined to fully express themselves.
Am I following my impulse to calm my child by saying, for example, “You’re okay”? Or am I staying connected and centered by acknowledging her feelings: “You bumped into the table. Ouch, that hurt you!”
Am I hurrying the feelings along, or waiting patiently for them to be fully released?
Am I staying unruffled and being a calm, confident leader when my child yells “NO”, “Shush!” or “I hate you”? Our best response is usually acknowledgment: “I hear you saying NO, you really don’t want to go now, but we must. Would you like to walk with me or be carried?” Or “I know you hate me at this moment. We all feel that way sometimes. But I won’t let you hit” (while we are firmly blocking the child from hitting).
2. Non-punitive, respectful discipline
Our acceptance and validation of our children’s feelings should most certainly not be confused with letting children do whatever they wish when they’re upset. In fact, this approach I recommend is the polar opposite of parental passivity or indulgence. We must learn to be so comfortable with (or, at least, accepting of) our child’s feelings that we can give respectful, honest boundaries confidently, all the while acknowledging, “I know this isn’t what you wanted”.
Comfort with our children’s darker emotions is essential for providing them firm behavior boundaries, and behavior boundaries are essential for the health and happiness of our kids.
To stay on track we might ask ourselves: Am I being firm but calm, tempering my emotions? Am I teaching from a place of unconditional love so that my child can feel assured that I am still on his or her team? Children don’t feel this way when we regularly lose our tempers, shame or punish them. These responses can create an unproductive and even dangerous us-against-them attitude.
Raising self-confident, healthy and happy kids is not about perfection (thank goodness!). It is about retaining a high level of awareness of our own triggers, impulses and projections and understanding how they might thwart the emotional health and authenticity of our children. We will all undoubtedly make many mistakes along the way, but that’s alright, because in this case, trying is more than good enough.
“I can be sad or happy whenever anything makes me sad or happy; I don’t have to look cheerful for someone else, and I don’t have to suppress my distress or anxiety to fit other people’s needs. I can be angry and no one will die or get a headache because of it.” – Dr. Alice Miller (imagining every infant’s wish), Drama of the Gifted Child
(Photo by jesse.millan on Flickr)
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