A story to illustrate how the science we’ve been discussing plays out in real life:
Last weekend, somewhere between the collards and the spinach, the peaceful plodding of putting in our Fall garden went wrong and I got really grumpy with my husband, Tom. One minute we were chatting over seedlings and the next I was feeling wronged and misunderstood. After some less than helpful squabbling, Tom, brilliant man that he is, recognized I was in the grip of implicit memories, took a deep breath, looked right at me, and said, “OK, tell me all of it.”
“I hate it when you judge me!” I ranted and raved. I went on recounting inconveniences that were building steam in the back of my mind as resentments. Before I knew it, I was talking about the hard look in my mother’s eyes when she deemed one of my childhood accomplishments beneath her notice. He was sitting right beside me handing me a Kleenex. And I was already starting to feel better.
When I stepped into the garden half an hour before, I had had no idea all of that was brewing inside of me. If my husband hadn’t stopped to pay attention and listen, I might not know it now. That gift of caring attention helped me release the feelings attached to those old memories that were interfering with my ability to relate to Tom and feel connected and understood in the present. I also learned some important things about myself while building a stronger sense of closeness in my marriage.
And this is exactly what children need when they have their tantrums. Whether you are four or forty, being human means having to deal with a lot of feelings, feelings that don’t come with a time stamp. They can sneak up on you, just like Tom triggering memories of how small and insignificant I felt as a child under my mother’s judgmental gaze. And we all, big and small, deserve the opportunity to share how we feel in a caring, thoughtful and non-judgmental space.
It saddens me when I hear parents proudly say they don’t put up with tantrums and send their kids off to the solitary confinement of their rooms until they can behave “properly.” I know they love their children, but what a lost opportunity to nurture and support them! That would be like my husband telling me, “I have no intention of loving all of you. I only want to see the parts that are easy for me.”
We are social animals. We all need connection with others. And sometimes, when we are overwhelmed with feelings, relating “properly” gets hard to do. But opening your heart and your arms to the feelings that are overwhelming your child clears her mind, allows her to think and learn unhindered by emotional baggage and builds an essential level of trust and closeness in the relationship between you.
So, the next time your two year-old starts to fall apart in the grocery store, just imagine I am there with you, with one arm around your shoulders saying, “Wow! You’re a lucky parent. What a great chance for you guys to get closer.” Maybe that will help you take a deep breath, bend down, and say, “Tell me all of it.”
Join Juli for an online class on the Science of Parenting in January.
A parent asked me the other day, “If our goal is to create teenagers and adults that can manage their own feelings, shouldn’t we be teaching them to ‘self-soothe’ as little ones? Shouldn’t they learn to stop their own crying?” The implication here is that we grown-ups ‘manage’ our feelings all by ourselves. That just isn’t true.
Human beings are social animals through and through. From before we are born, we are built to live in contingent communication with others who care about us. We are finely tuned to the emotional states of all those we are close to. Our brains take in and balance our emotional states in accord with those around us as part of a system. Just like they told us in A General Theory of Love, there really is no such thing as an individual human mind. Think about it: in prison, what’s the worst punishment they can dish out? Solitary confinement. Why? Because being isolated from the society of other human beings is the worst thing that can happen to a person. Look at Tom Hanks in the movie, “Cast Away.” Marooned on an island, he made a volleyball into a companion to talk to, and, in the end, chose to risk his life rather than continue living without other human beings.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that none of our kids will end up needing the skills necessary to live behind bars or on deserted islands. And yet, adults don’t deal with emotions in isolation. We share our feelings in obvious and also very subtle ways. In stressful moments, we communicate through rude gestures to that inconsiderate driver on the highway. On better days, we call a good friend when we’re feeling down. When facing major stressors, we turn to loved ones and social workers and therapists and religious leaders. We band together in communities of support in every format from sewing circles, to Dallas Cowboy fans, to AA meetings. Strong social connections have been shown to improve everything from overall life satisfaction to heart attack survival rates.
One of the most essential components of healthy adult relationships is good communication. That’s a skill that children are learning from us as we take the time to Staylisten when they have strong feelings to share. Every time you gather the warmth to keep on loving your child through their storms of anger, sadness, frustration or despair, you are communicating a deep acceptance of them. You are increasing their ability to understand and work with emotion in themselves and others.
For example, if your son is able to fully experience whatever desperation may come over him when he faces a night alone in the darkness (in the safety of his own room), and your warm and encouraging presence allows him to scream and feel terrified until he gets to the other side, that’s a wonderful self-esteem-building experience. Rather than clinging for dear life to a well-worn stuffed animal, trying to keep his fears at bay night after night, he learns that intense feelings come and go, and he is still here, still lovable, still cared for, and still whole. He need not fear emotions in himself or others. He need not hide his feelings away in his room in shame.
This process prepares children to be aware of who has warm attention for them and to share their feelings naturally as part of their daily experience, instead of bottling things up behind walls of isolation. Feelings that are tended to every day, at a natural pace, are dealt with before they can interfere with learning, health, or positive social relationships. Children raised this way can learn readily, take appropriate risks, make good choices for themselves, and be compassionate with others.
So, instead of ‘self-soothing’, maybe the real goal is raising children who are good at sharing their feelings and maintaining their connections.