Teach Children to Talk about their Feelings
Young children don’t spend a lot of time pondering the deep mysteries like ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What is the meaning of my life?’ Yet in their own way, they are trying to understand who they are.
The road to self-knowledge is to understand your emotions. Knowing that you are feeling angry, sad, happy or a mix of all these, is the way you come to know yourself – what you deeply care about, what frightens or delights you. The better you know yourself, the more rewarding and profound the relationship you will be able to build with others.
People who have never been taught to understand their emotions may go through life without a clue as to what they are really feeling. The way to prevent your children from growing up to be out of touch with themselves is to help them to come to grips with what they are feeling from the time they are small.
Although children are very emotional, being in tune with their feelings doesn’t necessarily come naturally to them. Most cannot verbally express the feeling behind the outburst or the sudden impulse to throw a punch unless someone offers guidance. They need a calm, understanding adult to label the emotion for them. So when your child hits you, it is best to say, ‘I can see you’re angry’. When he cries, you say emphatically. ‘Oh, you’re feeling sad’.
Helping your child put words to his feeling in this way won’t just help him understand his emotions, but eventually to control them when necessary. A child who is awash in an emotion may mistakenly experience the feeling as an extension of himself – as his identity. In other words, your child when he is in a rage because he can’t have another coke is not necessarily aware that he is experiencing anger. Instead, he becomes angry. Simply by giving him a word to explain what he is experiencing you make anger something that is separate from him; something that he can begin to control.
Your goal isn’t just to help your child identify his feelings, but to guide him towards accepting them. One of the most important lessons you can teach a child is that having feelings – even nasty ones – doesn’t make you ‘bad’. When you let a child know that his negative or uncomfortable feelings are acceptable, what you are really saying is that he is acceptable to you even when he is feeling furious, scared or sad. By getting this emotional carte blanche from an understanding parent, a child comes to see himself as acceptable. This makes positive growth and change easier.
The more children learn to talk about their anger, the less need they will have to act it out. They come to understand that there is a difference between feeling something – which is always okay – and doing something, which may not be. It takes a long time, and increased maturity, before children learn to always talk instead of act. But the job of the parents is to continually guide them along in this process.
There are also parents who tend to deny or dismiss a child’s negative emotions because they so desperately want to eradicate all painful experiences from their child’s life. So when your child says, ‘I am scared’. You say, ‘No, you are not – there is nothing to be scared of’. Or when he says, ‘I am sad’, you say, ‘Oh, no, no, it is a happy day!’
Though well intentioned, it amounts to emotional brainwashing. It can leave a young child with the sense that what he thinks and feels is not what he’s feeling. This hampers his self-understanding. He might have come to believe that what he is feeling is not okay with his parents. He may think that nobody in the world understands him. A childhood full of this approach will rob children of the opportunity to really understand themselves.
Dr Shayama Chona, is the former Principal of Delhi Public School, R K Puram, New Delhi; Founder President of Tamana (NGO for physically & mentally handicapped children); Founder of Anubhav Shiksha Kendra (a school for the under-privileged); she has been a member of 96 Advisory Boards and Committees; she has been nominated to Managing Committees of 46 schools and other educational institutions; she has been named in the Limca Book of Records 2007. She has been awarded the State Award for Services in Education 1993, National Award for Services as a Teacher of Outstanding Merit 1994, National Award for Outstanding Performance for Welfare of People with Disabilities 1997, Padma Shri 1999, Padma Bhushan 2008, and 49 other awards. She lives at C10/8, Vasant Vihar, New Delhi-110057. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com