Get out your dictionary and thesaurus. Look up emotions, feelings, and sensations and… surprise, each one is defined by the other!
What is a parent to do? Especially when all the new information from the ‘experts’ is saying, “help your child to express her/his feelings.” After wondering about this, and reading many authors who were using the words interchangeably, here’s my understanding about it, which I hope will be helpful:
Today, I’ll start with three basic emotions; the ones that are hard-wired in our reptilian brain. Anger, fear and sadness were programmed for the very survival of vulnerable little critters millennia ago. Now, our bodies are automatically triggered when threatened, frightened or hurt. And we, centuries later, are told by our culture (which requires and expects us to modify our aberrant behavior) to become mature, civilized citizens.
I have written previously about how you hear all three (anger, fear and sorrow) in an infant who, needing food and comfort, is simultaneously angry, scared, and sorrowful. If your slightly past babyhood child is expressing one of those emotions, it is great that you can name and acknowledge it.
After recognizing the emotion the second step is to ask yourself, how was that for me as a child? If it was fear, was I seen and heard? Was I comforted and made to feel safe and secure? If it was anger, was I heard and allowed to express it, or did I remain in my room ’til I could be nice? And sadness. If there was a loss, was it acknowledged and given space to heal?
The ‘experts’ speculate that in hunter/gatherer times, if a person was injured, for example a hunter was badly bitten by his prey, he would know to retreat to his cave to heal and recuperate for as long as it took.
Now, equipped with some insight about something that you may not have experienced yourself, you and your child can forge ahead into realms previously inaccessible. Together you can experience a deeper, more real and growth-enhancing connection. If this comes naturally, CONGRATULATIONS! If not, follow these simple steps which you will adapt in age appropriate ways:
STEP ONE: Your child is feeling an emotion that has a name. Example: fear. Where do they feel it? What are the sensations? Without telling them, help the child with inquiry – Tingly? Hot? Tight? etc.
STEP TWO: After acknowledging what they (not you)identify as the feeling, you supply them with what is wanted or needed. For example, an angry child may need to “vent,” stamp feet, yell, make up angry statements. Experts say that emotions come and go like the clouds. So your adult job is to receive whatever s/he expresses, providing a neutral place.
STEP THREE: You see, hear, comfort, thus presenting a model of a competent and loving adult. And, as you get experience with this, stay light about it, even playful! Ms. and Mr. Parent, your job is to accept and understand, being careful not to judge or advise, and in doing so, your child will thrive and grow.
For practice with this and other parenting hints, watch for an announcement of Liz Wertheim’s Parent Support Group – coming soon!
Image Credit: HAPPY Bandits