…When I want sincerity
tell me where else can I turn?
Because you’re the one I depend upon.
“I’m fine. Really. Fine.” From that statement, are you convinced that I’m fine? Even without hearing the tone of my voice, there’s a clear subtext. “I’m not fine. I can’t bring myself to talk about it. But I’m clearly not fine.” How often do we steel ourselves to get through the day or an activity numbing out our feelings for our own protection and perhaps the protection of those around us? Though sometimes it’s a useful strategy, it’s a confusing lesson to children who are watching and learning about emotions.
In our culture, the tendency is to view any emotion other than happiness as negative, weak and sometimes, downright embarrassing. Showing or expressing emotion is a vulnerable act, a high risk endeavor. It is often easier to gloss over the reality of our situation. At Starbucks when the Barista asks how you are doing today, “Fine.” is a perfect response. But with our most intimate connections, our family, “Fine.” is not enough for them to really know and understand you. Emotions, if we allow for them to do so, can be critical clues to our experience of life. If we ignore the clues, we shut out possibilities for learning and deeper connection.
So, why you might ask, is it important that I am honest with my family about my emotions day to day? What if I am regularly depressed or fearful? Who wants to hear about that? Perhaps just acknowledging that those feelings are a part of your daily life can help you begin to realize patterns, gain understanding and deal with them. It gives your family the opportunity to empathize with and support you. Children learn about their emotions through you, their models and mirrors. The more exposure they have to a variety of feelings, the language of feelings and how you choose to deal with those feelings, the more adept they become with their own self-awareness.
One coaching client, a Mom of a three and a five year old, practiced using feeling words with her children through games, a feelings poster and her own modeling and coaching. The five year olds’ teacher was unaware that her Mom was working on this at home. But in their parent-teacher conference, the teacher – unsolicited – relayed, “Your daughter is now clearly articulating her emotions.” In a preschool classroom, it’s a highly coveted skill utilized as children learn to get along with one another and adapt to the rules and routines of school. In fact, self-awareness can directly impact school success. Children can identify their emotions and make informed choices about their behavior. They can build upon their strengths and seek support for their challenges.
There are a number of simple ways we can become more emotionally honest in family life and give our children valuable practice in learning about the affective aspect of who they are. Try out a few of the following.
Use feeling words to describe yourself. Because hiding feelings tends to be a pervasive habit, adults may need practice in emotional honesty. It may take some discipline in order to do this. Set aside a week when you’ll note how you feel each day and communicate it to your family. This simple modeling alone is a powerful teaching tool for your children. It may even deepen your trust and connection with your family.
Expand your feelings vocabulary. We use this terrific feelings poster, “How Do You Feel Today?” by Cincinnati artist Jim Borgman.2 It helps to have a list of words. You can become more descriptive and specific with your feeling words and help your child do the same. Also check out this table below from the “EQ Fitness Handbook” by Jan Johnson. 3
Teach through games and books. Try out the Feelings Guessing Game at mealtime or on a longer car ride. Each person gets a chance to guess what another person in the family is feeling that day, when you thought they felt it and why. If a guess is correct, give a high five or fist bump. If they do not get it right, listen to the true feeling of the person who felt it and offer the guesser a second chance. For parents, see if you can come up with emotions beyond happy, sad and mad though not so complex that your children will not understand.
Make a point when you are reading your bedtime stories to stop and ask, “What do you think the main character is feeling?” This is a great opportunity to help with reading comprehension as well as emotional intelligence.
Practice and notice. If you are just getting started with your children, find simple opportunities to talk about emotions. When you are walking away from a winning game, ask how that made your child feel. As you practice with simpler emotions and times that are not high stakes, your children will become better able to communicate with you when there is greater upset.
Reinforce and remind. Notice when your children are able to articulate their emotions and use feeling words when they tell stories. Your daughter may tell you, “Momma, I think (little brother) Connor is sad.” These are seeds of empathy. You may say, “Ella, you noticed when Connor was feeling sad. That’s going to help you be an even better big sister.”
And after a powerful upset has occurred and your child is calming down, then ask, “How were you feeling?” Particularly with preschool age children, you may need to offer specific words and ask if they accurately describe their feelings.
Resist “fixing” too quickly. This last one is written specifically for me. I am a fixer. I want to take away hurts the minute they begin. And so when there is upset, I go into fix-it mode right away…sometimes, even before I fully understand the problem at hand and the emotions that are a part of it. Put your tools away while you are listening to an upset child. Keep yourself open to what they have to say. Help them to “cool” down and get through the conversation because often times, the simple act of communicating when there’s intense anger or anxiety can be extremely difficult. Show patience and allow your child the space to calm down and then to talk about it without skipping to the quick fix.
Emotional honesty can be a great challenge since we are well-rehearsed at putting on a happy face. When we hide our true feelings, we hide ourselves along with it and shield our children from knowing who we are and in turn, helping them know themselves.
1. Joel, B. (1978). Honesty. On 52nd Street Album (Record). Colorado Springs, CO: Impulsive Music.
2. Borgman, J. How Do You Feel Today? How Do You Feel Today Productions.
3. Johnson, J. (2010). EQ Fitness Handbook; You In Relationship. 300 Daily Practices to Build EQ Fitness. Seattle, WA: Learning In Action Technologies.