I learned how to calculate the angles of a triangle, and I’ve been tested on hundreds of important historical dates. I know how to brush my teeth and how to ace a job interview, but the older I get, the more I realize how little I was taught in real, solid, basic human skills.
Like how to manage my emotions, for example.
I’ve been hard-wired to let emotional waves pull me under, carrying me out with the tide. It’s taken years of self-analysis and life lessons to better understand how much control I actually have in the way I feel and think. But as I make my way through my 20s, I’m constantly trying to unlearn harmful mind patterns and rewire my system in a healthier, more stable way.
The only problem: I basically entered adulthood and motherhood at the same exact time. At 22 years old, I didn’t realize how much of myself I had to work on until I was suddenly responsible for teaching another brand-new person how to be a human. The pressure! The urgency! And, my goodness, so many of us have trouble with the basic human stuff — like our feelings, our thoughts, and our self-awareness. And all of this gets passed right down to our kids as their default “normal” setting. In a world rampant with dysfunction, how do I teach a little person to do better?
Take responsibility for your emotions.
“You’re hurting my feelings.”
I can’t tell you how many times that sentence has come out of my 5-year-old’s mouth lately — his tiny finger pointing toward someone who dared to say something, or do something, against his liking. And that’s when I button-up my adult pants and say something super rational and mature, like, “No one can make you feel anything.” (Which, fun fact, is exactly the last thing a pouting five-year-old wants to hear.)
“Yes, you ARE making me feel sad,” he’ll shoot back. “You’re not listening to me!” (dramatic arm crossing)
Grown-up voice: “I am listening to you, and I’m seeing that you’re feeling sad. Why are you feeling sad?”
“I’m sad because you said … ”
“Oop, hold on,” I calmly interrupt. “You felt sad when … ”
“I felt sad when you said we couldn’t play another game,” he begrudgingly corrects himself.
The truth is, teaching our kids to not only label their emotions, but to take responsibility for their emotions — rather than blaming other people for “making” them feel something — is incredibly important. It might be the most important concept that most of us never actually learned.
So I give him scripts, and he’s starting to auto-correct himself to avoid the Blame Game. (Progress!) Except I have approximately 140 characters to explain this lesson before his five-year-old attention span shuts down:
You are in control over your emotions and your mind patterns and your body. Don’t allow someone to take that from you. Don’t allow someone to ruin your day. No one can make you feel sad or mad without you allowing it. And you have a choice in how you react to situations. I didn’t make you throw a tantrum, you chose to throw a tantrum when you were feeling angry.
At some point his eyes will glaze over, and I imagine my voice has morphed into background noise that sounds more like Charlie Brown’s teacher than actual words of wisdom.
More than that, there’s something about neat-and-tidy nuggets of wisdom like, “No one can make you feel anything without your permission,” and “Happiness is a choice” that reek of cliché potential. Clichés that graze the top of our kids’ heads, and only make sense after a handful of life lessons and “aha” moments. The sentiment is right-on, but it’s a tough concept for a little kid to grasp.
Heck, it’s hard for an adult to understand, because sometimes it darn well feels like someone’s crappy behavior or words are a direct cause of our unhappy emotional state. Sometimes an emotion doesn’t feel like a choice, especially when deep sadness or grief or fear grips us. And no amount of pep talks can teach the underlying self-awareness that, ultimately, brings clarity to this abstract concept.
Learn to understand your emotions.
When I told my therapist that I have a hard time managing my emotions, he told me that no one “manages” their emotions. Our emotions are here to tell us something about our bodies and our lives, and mustering through uncomfortable emotions is part of life. But we don’t have to let them consume us, and we can be aware of what they actually mean.
According to him, sadness means that something is missing from our lives. Anger comes from being hurt. Fear is a response to a threat that’s real and imminent (as opposed to anxiety which, although the body processes it the same as fear, is a response to something that could happen yet is only real in our heads). Grief, of course, comes from painful loss, and it’s an emotion that virtually no human escapes.
These emotions don’t need to be managed, they need to be recognized. And perhaps that’s the first step in increasing our children’s self-awareness about what they’re feeling, why they’re feeling it, and — most importantly — understanding that emotions are normal and temporary. Just like everything born into this world, emotions eventually go away. But while they’re washing over us like a wave of blue-tinted sadness or red-rage anger, emotions change the way we think and behave. Sometimes we make bad choices if we’re mad or scared, but that temporary emotional state will go away, especially with a grown-up’s guidance.
And so I try to listen to what he’s feeling to encourage that awareness, while reassuring him that he can make smart choices about how to handle the temporary emotional spike.
The only problem: Sometimes I don’t make smart choices myself.
Model healthy emotional awareness.
It’s so painfully obvious that kids absorb more of what they’re seeing than what we tell them — and oh, there are moments I wish my son wouldn’t see. Like when I impulsively snap out of anger, and hurtful words tumble out of my mouth and hurl across the room, uncontrollably. Or when long-established family dysfunctions surface, and he sees grown-ups he trusts and admires suddenly being consumed and controlled by an emotional whim (or by the emotional whims of each other).
So many of us aren’t able to process and handle our emotions maturely because we were raised by people who stuffed down their feelings or exploded in a rage — and they were raised by people who did the same. But is there anything more important than taking control over what’s happening in our bodies? (Especially for kids who traditionally have very little control in their daily to-dos, how empowering to realize that they have sole control over what they think and feel and say. That no one — not a parent, not a teacher, not a friend — can take that away from them.)
But how will they possibly believe that if we, as their parents, are unable to harness that control? Beyond the scripts and pep-talks and active listening, we need to work on practicing our own self-awareness first. We need to show our kids that, yes, our emotional states are powerful and difficult, and sometimes we make mistakes. But we’re ultimately in control. Ultimately, this is what makes us human.
Not the ability to take a test.
Not manners or sports or even art.
At the end of the day, nothing will help our kids do better — in every aspect of their lives — than understanding and owning their emotions. And if they aren’t going to learn this at school, or in the mess of dysfunction swirling through society, then it has to come from us.
It has to start with us.
Read more from Michelle at EarlyMama.com.