The longer I spend with my littles, the more I realize what a gargantuan task we each face in self-regulation. That our bodies do it in their own – that we don’t have to remember to breathe and make our hearts beat and keep track of our temperature – can only be mercy. I don’t think we’d have ta chance at managing if we had to think through all of that, too.
Self-regulation in the higher things seems like more than we can handle, sometimes.
Anger and frustration management is the current cuppa, for both kids. I watch them struggle with their feelings, with feelings that seem larger than they are, and I can feel their overwhelm at the relative sizes of the things.
And so I do what parents do. I help make the feelings feel manageable by giving them names, by giving my kids choices and ideas about how to deal with them, and by holding the kids close until the largeness of it all passes and we can talk about their experience. And I do my best to model for them what it looks like to manage feelings, to feel them but not let them rule the way I treat people or the decisions I make.
Still, sometimes I can’t help but think that they’re onto something.
Feelings are not small things. It’s easy to tell a child, “It’s okay. You don’t need to be scared/feel angry/hit your brother for stealing your toy.” But that denies their reality. It says, “This thing, the one that seems so big to you, is actually very small. You’re wrong. Your perceptions are messed up.”
Most of us, when we say these things, don’t mean to tell our kids that. I know I don’t. We may think that, from our perspective, what they’re upset about really isn’t a big deal, but we don’t mean to confuse them about their perceptions or make them feel like we don’t want to listen to them. Most of the time, we want to comfort them. We want to communicate something like, “I know you’re upset right now, but in a couple of minutes it’s all going to be okay and you’ll be playing on the slide again. This feels so big but, in the scheme of your whole life, it’s actually pretty small, and I hate to see you expending so much energy being upset like this.”
That, and their strong feelings remind us of our own.
The farther I get through life, the more I become convinced that most of us adults don’t manage our feelings as much as we deny them, diminutize them, hide them, or let them run us over.
Because feelings are big, unless we had some superbly gifted or trained parents who were great teachers, they’re overwhelming to adults, too. But overwhelming outbursts of feeling aren’t much wanted or welcome in our culture and our world, so we have to do something with the feelings. We say, “No, I’m fine,” and deny what we’re feeling. Or we say, “Yeah, I felt that way for a while, but it went away,” or “Maybe I feel that, but not really,” and try to make the feelings smaller than they are. Or we smile when our hearts want to hurt someone, figuring that if we can hide the feelings from everyone else, maybe they’ll actually go away. And when none of those options work, we have that hated outburst or falling apart or nervous breakdown, because the feeling was too big and we were too small.
The options we end up using aren’t just easy ways out, because most of the time they aren’t easy and they don’t actually get us “out” of anything. For most of us, they’re the only ways we could find that produced socially acceptable behavior and didn’t threaten to destroy us.
Does that sound crazy, that our feelings scare us? I know that’s what my kids feel. I look in their eyes when they’re angry or frustrated and I see their fear that the feeling will win. I see how they see its largeness and they want to be sure to come out on the other side of this encounter. And they lash out, in part because the feeling overpowers them and in part, I think, because they feel like maybe they can win that way, maybe if they fight they won’t be destroyed.
And I sympathize. I can look in their eyes and see (literally, see) that they need to get the feelings out out of them if they’re ever going to grow into whole little people. They can’t bury and carry that type of thing; that’s not what they were made to do.
Which always leads me to the questions: What were they made to do? What is a 3 year old made to do with strong feelings? What about a 10 year old? An adult? I still have more answers than questions, but these are the things I’ve found:
They have to feel them. They can’t deny them, or the feeling will get stuck inside and, in some ways, they will never be free. I suspect that sounds over-dramatic, but I think it’s also true. Carrying around a bit of anger or frustration here or there may not hurt them, but making a pattern of denying feelings means at least two things that I can think of. First, it means that the feelings will build up over time. Lots of small things can become something big, if you stack them together. Secondly, making denial into a habit means that that’s what they’ll try to do when something big happens, and then their internal load will increase in weight exponentially. No, they have to feel them.
Let them be big. I want my kids to know that their feelings feel big because they are big, but that that doesn’t mean they have to be overwhelmed by them. I want to give my children a sense that they are bigger, inside, than their feelings feel, and that the God who lives within them is even bigger. The only way they won’t be intimidated by the size of their feelings is if they feel like they are larger still, and so I want to show them that, so they don’t have to be afraid. I want them to know what an awesome thing a soul is, and that they have one and are one and that feelings are actually smaller than the whole.
Show them to others. I want my kids to be able to show and share their feelings to trusted people. I know that’s not everyone. In a world like ours, they’ll have to hide sometimes, because it’s not safe any other way. But I want the hiding to be their choice, to teach them who is and is not safe for hearing and holding feelings, and to teach them how to navigate in a world where it is safe to feel and to let people know what you’re feeling and how big it is.
When my kids know these things, I think that the threat of their being overwhelmed by their feelings will be much lower. They won’t have to have outbursts, because they won’t be holding things in. They’ll be able to feel things as they come without fear and, as needed, with help and companionship on the way.
I don’t, by any means, think that these are the only things my kids need to know emotionally, nor do I know, all the time, how to practically teach my kids these things. But I do see these as some of my most important ultimate goals.
And seeing things this way transforms the way I view every tantrum, every lashing out, every over-dramatic moment. When I can respond to their feelings as I’d want them to respond, I am gentler, kinder, and more compassionate, and they learn to respond to themselves in these ways, too.