Let’s face it. Parenting is hard—like, really hard. As Brené Brown says, our children are hardwired for struggle and it is our job to create a foundation of worthiness, love, and belonging so they grow up into emotionally healthy adults. However, much of the time we as parents don’t realize how our words and actions are impacting their emotional development. Making it even harder, it seems like there are a billion rules to parenting and the rules keep freakin’ changing! No parent can keep up!
One parenting pattern I have seen time after time in my practice, as well as in my own upbringing, is the impact of emotional minimizing. My clients often report they have been told they are “too sensitive” or they fly off the handle too easily with no understanding about why. They may say the people in their life do not listen and only offer advice or fix-it solutions to their stressors. They may have been told all throughout their lives that, “Well honey, it could be worse” or that they are throwing themselves a pity party at the onset of any difficult or strong emotion. Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people who play the victim role and throw themselves a huge fiesta of a pity party that could last days, weeks, or years.
Let’s get one thing straight: Emotions, including difficult ones, are good for us! We need them to protect us and we need to start learning how to trust them and understand them! When was the last time you felt scared? That fear likely protected you from a worst-case scenario. For instance, my daughter ran toward the street as I was attempting to get her into the car. My fear put me into fight-mode (i.e. fight, flight, or freeze), which enabled me to sprint after her (yes, as I was 8 months pregnant) and scoop her up before her feet hit the pavement while a car passed by. When was the last time you felt upset or angry? There were likely feelings underneath it to better understand. Possibly some hurt or some jealousy or some sadness that was mismanaged. An example I have seen in my office includes the following: Husband and wife are at each other’s throats over little things. The anger outbursts have nothing to do with the anger, but with feeling disconnected from one another as they both recognize they are going down completely different paths in their personal life. Helping them understand their underlying emotions and how to respond to them in healthier ways led them to a happier marriage down the road.
So, how do you know if you were raised by an emotional minimizer? Of course, some of the tell-tale comments I referred to above. But also, how did your parents handle your emotions? If you were upset as a child, how did they respond? Did they tell you to go to your room until you were done throwing your fit or tell you crying wasn’t allowed at the dinner table? If so, they were teaching you that hard emotions must be hidden or avoided. I think many of us have fallen into this trap as parents where we tell our kids to contain their emotions to their room, and that is okay as long as there is a repair. A repair means that the parent approaches the child shortly after, consoles them with a back rub or positive touch as they are calming down, makes eye contact, and helps them understand how to respond to that emotion in a healthy way. For instance, “Honey, I saw that you were very upset about not getting to play outside longer. It is okay to feel sad when you don’t get something you want, but it is not okay to hit mommy or anyone else when you feel that way. Instead you can take some deep breaths and talk to mommy about playing outside another time. When mommy tells you to come in for dinner time, I’m trying to keep you healthy and strong so you can keep playing and learning! I love you so I want to keep you healthy and strong.” Follow that up with a hug and some deep breaths together, and voila! You have a repair! You are validating her emotions, letting her know she is still loved, and giving her the information she needs to respond to that emotion in a healthy way without feeling shame about them.
Then it is our job as parents to role model this for them and help them use this skill in later emotional outbursts. It takes time for little ones to understand and use these skills in practice, but this effort goes a long way as these children grow older (those behaviors are harder to fix later on). I also want to emphasize that this does not mean we as parents cannot lose our cool from time to time. I’ve been guilty on multiple occasions of losing my lid! But it means that we must make a repair attempt—explaining to our kiddo that we aren’t perfect, apologizing, and letting them know how we will attempt to learn from it. After cooling down, I have been known to approach my daughter and say, “Lydia, mommy was very short with you and I didn’t mean to take my frustration out on you. I’m sorry and need to keep working on my patience.” Again, followed up with a hug and a kiss, my repair attempt was successful as she scoots along to her next activity!
So, for the emotional minimizers who might be reading this blog and may not be consciously aware of it until they saw some of the “red flags,” what are the big take-aways?
The more we learn as a society how to understand, express, and manage our emotions in a healthy way, the better off we will be in loving and respecting one another. Let’s make the effort for a better “us” as a whole by learning what vulnerability is and how to let our emotions play a role in our lives.