Mind Matters: Emotions are established in childhood


Children express themselves through their actions. An infant has no language, and so cries when in pain or discomfort. A two-year-old spontaneously acts out his feelings before s/he knows what they are. Lighthearted laughter means joyfulness.

Screaming, stamping, or hitting are signs of anger. These are feelings being acted out because a child has no language through which to express emotion. Children also have not yet learned what words describe certain feelings.

It helps a child to learn about feelings when a parent wisely says, “You are angry right now,” or “You seem very excited. Tell me about it.” It is important not to judge or condemn children for their feelings. Being taught how to label and express feelings is a critical step in emotional development.

Just as we all gradually learn how to walk and talk, in an appropriate environment, we become skilled at recognizing what and how we feel. Children must be taught by parents what different feelings mean and how to describe them. Parents who are patient and understanding, and who can remember that no skill is acquired overnight, will lead their children to the greatest success in managing emotions.

Ideally it would be a slow, gradual process, beginning at an early age and addressing both positive and negative emotions, but ideals are seldom found in the real world. Some mothers, from early infancy, use calm tones and phrases such as, “It’s all right, you’re crying because you’re hungry,” and then feed the child.

As the child matures, it knows the signs of hunger, associates it with a need for food and soon is asking to be fed, rather than having tantrums. What if all mothers did the same with anger, disappointment, and happiness? More people would be better at handling their feelings and we could all be more real with each other.

Not only must children understand and find labels for their feelings; they must also be taught what to do with them. A toddler’s foot-stamping is unacceptable in the adult world, but what is the best way to manage tantrums? A child who is taught to express feelings appropriately will be an adult who can do so. The lessons are quite simple. We need only to hear our children, give them neutral feedback and offer choices.

A common scenario occurs in toy stores. Little Tommy wants a truck, and screams when mother refuses him. This is embarrassing, so Mom tries to ignore Tommy, but it doesn’t work. He screams louder, hoping she will relent, as usual. This time, however, Mom changes her tactics. She says, “I know you’re really angry because you want that truck. Tell me how that feels.”

Tommy is surprised and becomes calmer. He reiterates what he wants. Instead of refusing him Mom says, “You must really want that truck.” He tearfully nods his head. She then points out he has a new truck at home from last week, that he hasn’t had a chance to play with. She asks if he likes it. Again Tommy nods. “When we get home you can play with it. You’d like to have another truck right now, but you already have one, so will you wait ‘til we get home?” Tommy is now calm, thinking of his toy at home, and he’s had a glimpse at the lesson of delayed gratification.

Unfortunately, many of us learn only to suppress anger and stifle frustration and pain, as we were never taught how to appropriately express these negative reactions. Thus, we tend to act out our feelings because we simply don’t know how to handle emotions any better than when we were kids. We want someone to hear and understand us, but haven’t a clue how to make it happen. If we’re angry at someone, we don’t know how to tell them, and so act it out indirectly by not speaking, pouting or “getting even.”

As adults, we can learn about assertiveness, a process of expressing oneself directly, clearly and honestly in ways that are socially acceptable. Non-violent communication is another effective tool for adults who lack skills of emotional expression. Numerous books, CDs, DVDs and classes are available on these topics.

Elinor Stanton is a psychiatric nurse practitioner on Marco Island, with 33 years experience as a therapist, both in private practice and with a large health maintenance organization in Boston. She graduated from Boston College and the University of Rochester, and is certified as a clinical specialist by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Stanton also is certified in Imago Relationship Therapy and trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Comments and questions may be submitted to etseven@aol.com or 394-2861.

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