This morning I lay in bed, too early to be awake, and felt my internal weather pattern shift and move—a roiling of clouds and keening winds. I didn’t try to make too much sense of these sensations, though they were informative: something is stirring me up. The source of this turbulence is not absolutely necessary to isolate and pick apart. I just know that I am agitated right now and need to honor that feeling without discharging it unthinkingly on others. The reasons will emerge.
MODELING EMOTIONAL AWARENESS
I recently read The Emotionally Healthy Child by Maureen Healy. The author’s main thesis is that showing kids how to pay attention to and process emotional signals allows them to interrupt or slow down more challenging “big” feelings. With this ability to pause and process, children can make better behavioral and emotional choices. Healy provides many tools to support this learning process. Apart from specific techniques, she writes, the most important tools are parents. Caregivers can help their children become aware of and regulate their emotions through modeling and providing the language and thinking space to recognize emotions as they emerge.
This simple concept makes sense. However, it is much more easily said than done, particularly in the midst of a kid’s meltdown. Perhaps your workday was stressful. You didn’t get enough sleep. Your partner is distant. It could be this is the ninth tantrum this week over something seemingly inconsequential and you’ve used up what little patience you had. Other responsibilities and needs pull at you. Add in the way many of us learn early on to disregard our bodies’ signals, to block awareness of our emotional currents, modeling self-regulation becomes another impossible-seeming parenting (and human!) task.
PAYING ATTENTION TO YOUR EMOTIONAL SIGNALS
We learn to ignore emotional signals in childhood, often for reasons of self-preservation. The end result may have the flavor of emotional regulation. For example, most of us are able to contain our feelings of anger or sadness in social or professional situations and in less heated moments with family and friends. But those who are closest to us have a way of accessing our more intense feelings and familiar hurts. Life stress added to competing needs added to emotional and family history can equal adult meltdowns or emotional cutoffs. By the time our own “big feelings” emerge, it’s often too late to interrupt them.
making steps toward emotional awareness
The process to changing this pattern starts with a basic task. Once or twice a day, take a few minutes to check into your body. What’s going on inside? What hurts? What feels unsettled? Do those feelings have names? (Note: if you have a history of trauma, this task may be overwhelming. If this is the case, I recommend seeking out therapeutic support.)
A shift towards emotional awareness, however small, can be positive and beneficial to both you and your children. The daily body check-in task is a good beginning. Over time you can use it in situations when emotions are high. Narrating as you scan your body for indications of anger and frustration (or sadness…or other feelings that emerge) can help your kids better understand their own emotions and yours. This takes practice and time. Your efforts will be imperfect because you are human and we are imperfect. By making the process and your struggles with it transparent, you model a useful life skill.