One of my parenting resolves is to raise my child to be in touch with his emotions. This means letting him experience good and so-called bad emotions and giving him the emotional vocabulary to identify what he’s feeling (1, 2, 3). Having this noble parenting goal is one thing, execution is another.
For one, my son is much better at being in touch with his entire range of emotions than I am. I am trying to unlearn the suppression of emotions and to become better at allowing myself to feel unpopular or unattractive feelings such as sadness, loneliness, hurt, envy rather than numbing them or covering them up with anger or by blaming others (as previously described in Emotional Layer Cake with Jealous Filling and Righteous Coating).
In addition, while I have an extensive vocabulary to describe ‘negative’ feelings such as angry, upset, frustrated, hurt, disappointed (even if I’d rather not go there), my language isn’t as granular when it comes to positive feelings: In German - which I’m using when I talk to my son - I have trouble coming up with positive emotions other than ‘joy’.
Parenting books also tend to emphasise the importance of acknowledging feelings in situations when the child is upset, hurt and/or crying (1, 2). They do not talk that much about acknowledging the child’s feeling when they are playing happily, are blissfully absorbed, calmly relaxed or proudly triumphant because these situations do not call for parental intervention. But research on happiness and the management of depression recommends that we experience at least three times as many positive than negative emotions in life or in relationships (5). I think it is more difficult to attain that ratio if we know an abundance of words to describe negative emotions but take positive states as granted or ‘as it should be’.
Oscillating between delight and frustration - you and me both, child.
My little one is currently oscillating between a huge range of emotions. He has changed so much in the last month. He has become very interactive and very curious about the world. Everything he sees, he wants to explore. I relish in fostering and observing his curiosity and joy of discovery. And my heart wells over when he initiates or joins in bouts of silliness: making funny sounds, playing catch, playing peekaboo. Nothing in the world sounds better than a child’s exuberant laughter.
He makes sounds of utter delight when he gets his little hands (and unfortunately also mouth) on something new that has yet to be discovered and that promises unknown features and unchartered territory. But I also have to keep him away from things that I deem unsafe or detrimental for him.
For example, I don’t want him to get too intrigued by smart phones, which is difficult. One time, I let my son hold my phone while FaceTiming with my husband, only to take it away from him when he got too interested. Blissful delight was turned into grave disappointment, and he had what I described to friends as his first tantrum. The crying was more desperate and unconsolable than when he bumped his little head or when he was struggling to fall asleep.
Wanting to acknowledge his feelings in those moments, I have been searching for the right words. Is he angry, furious, disappointed? Angry and furious seem out of place for this innocent child. Disappointed seems most fitting, but not strong enough given the volume of his cries and the inconsolability of his pain. Hmmm, how puzzling… A recent incident helped me to better understand what my little son might be feeling.
Loss, disappointment, and heartbreak!
My husband, my son and I were all on the way to the baby swim lesson. My husband was accompanying us since the pool was on his way to work. A couple meters away from the pool entrance, I cursed because I realised that I had forgotten to bring the bath slippers and I hate walking around barefoot at the pool. As my eyes focused on the pram basket where I should have put the slippers, I froze: “I didn’t bring the towels! We can’t go swimming!” It was too late to rush home to get the towels. By the time I had covered both ways and gotten us changed into swim gear, the swimming lesson would be over.
First my brain went completely empty, then annoyance came up. “Why do I have to think of everything, prepare everything, and make sure that everything is packed!”, I was thinking and instantly recognised these thoughts to be the convenient blame game (blame is considered to not be a real emotion, but one we use to cover up an emotion such as sadness or hurt). And trying to blame my husband was laughable since he really had been the best partner and dad I could wish for.
So instead I tried to go into problem-solving mode: “What am I going to do with this morning if we can’t go swimming? Should we go to the play group that he is too old for by now?” I was feeling disoriented since my plans had come crashing down. Despite my lame attempts to move forward, I was still standing there like a lost child.
Thankfully, my hero husband ripped off his collared shirt to reveal that he was Superman: “You go in, get changed and get in the water. I’ll run back home to get the towels and bring them to the pool side.” Of course, how brilliant! I didn’t need the towels until the very end of the lesson! I went off completely elated: My day was saved!
(While my husband ran at the speed of superman, unfortunately he is not superman, which means that he got to go to work in a collared shirt that was pretty sweaty. I felt a little guilty. I probably should make sure not to forget the towels next time…)
Later that day, I tried to figure out what I had actually felt in that moment. I knew that I had looked forward to the swimming lesson because my son had started to really enjoy them lately. I’m not sure that he was conscious of being in the water, but he was definitely aware of the rubber duck! And seeing him go crazy over it - paddling like a dog to get to it, throwing himself from the poolside to get to it, and extending his chubby arms and hands very slowly to grab it because he had figured out that a fast movement created a wave that made rubber ducky surf away - made me happy beyond measure.
Thinking about this made me nostalgic: He was changing so fast, shedding one quirk for the next adorable one. You really had to be present to every moment if you didn't want to miss what might be gone the next day. His rubber duck obsession was one of these quirks. When I realised that we couldn’t go swimming, I had lost the opportunity to experience it - potentially for the last time. What I had actually felt in that moment had been loss, disappointment, sadness, ….. and a tinge of heartbreak.
I remembered that when I didn’t let myself play the blame game in that moment, I had gone numb before I tried pushing myself towards rational problem-solving. If, however, instead of going numb, I had let myself express the extend of my disappointment, I think the reaction commensurate with my disappointment may have been a full blown melt-down, like my son’s tantrum over me taking away the smart phone.
How dismissive to describe what must have been utter despair as a tantrum. After digging into my feelings over the pool incident, I think I now understand my sons heart-piercing cries. They’re not over the top or out of proportion. He is just expressing his heartbreak over a loss.
Different emotional concepts
In contrast to me, my son has not started to numb away the pain of loss or to appease it with rationality. When I had tried to identify the emotion that my son might be feeling over ‘toys’ being taken away from him, I had attached my modern-day, Western, adult, and personal view to these emotional concepts (3):
Anger: loud, more forceful, outward, based on an observable reason, more accepted as an expression.
Disappointment: quiet, inward, less socially accepted as an prolonged expression (‘you’ll get over it’).
Feeling of loss (grief): only applicable and acceptable for major life events, to be expressed in quiet, private mourning with a limited amount of tears.
Even though I consider anger to be a ‘louder’ emotion than disappointment, I now believe that while we adults may express disappointment over a loss much quieter than we might express our anger, the feeling of loss is the more authentic and primary feeling, and we might do better in directly expressing - and especially experiencing - our feeling of loss. Come to think of it, though, in literature and olden times, the expression of a feeling of loss was plenty loud as these words are coming to mind: “...and the women wailed in grief”. (Let me know if you know a literary sources that I can quote here.)
Next challenge: Teach my son - and myself - how to feel the emotion without necessarily having to express it outwardly via the - in most cases socially unacceptable - means of melt downs, tantrums, or wailing.
Final note on the function of emotions
Psychology ascribe emotions the function of creating a shortcut when we assess a situation and allowing us to make the right decision for us. The mechanism is as follows: Every experience we have also triggers an emotional response. Experience and emotional response are both committed to memory. When we assess a present situation or new options, we go back through our wealth of experiences and compare which past experience is most similar to the current option(s). Accessing our past experiences also brings up past emotions and thus allows us to rate each experience according to how it made us feel. If our emotional response was a negative one, we’ll probably avoid the option. If the past experience that coincides with the current option made us feel good, we are more likely to go with that option. This process often happens outside our conscious awareness. (4)
Feeling guilty over my husband having to run home to make up for my lack of preparation may have slightly increased the likelihood of me being better prepared for my son’s swim lessons. But I believe that being aware of the pain of missing out on the swim lesson will definitely make me prepare the swim gear and towels the night before. Experiencing the pain has brought to the forefront of my mind how important these moments with my son are to me.
Emotions also have a social functions as they communicate to the outside world what it looks like inside of us - if we express our emotions - and allow others to react to our emotions. My husband later told me, that the towel incident made him feel much closer to me and much more like a family unit. “I felt really needed and that I had something to contribute.” Had I shrugged off my disappointment and presented a fake front of not caring and being on top of the problem, I would have deprived my husband from making his contribution and feeling connected.
- Martha Gerber and Allison Johnson. 1998. Your Self-Confident Baby - How to encourage your child’s natural abilities from the very start. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
- Jesper Juul. 2011. Your Competent Child - Toward a new paradigm in parenting and education. Balboa Press.
- Lisa Feldman Barrett. 2018. How Emotions Are Made - The Secret Life of the Brain. Pan Books.
- Claudia Wassmann. 2002. Die Macht der Emotionen - Wie Gefühle unser Denken und Handeln beeinflussen. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. p.89ff
- Barbara L. Fredrickson. 2009. Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. Crown Publishers
- Richard O’Connor. 2010. Undoing Depression - What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You. Souvenir Press.