Teaching negative emotions to your kids


There are feelings that most kids feel at some point in their growing-up years--feelings that are usually considered negative and can have a long-term effect if not expressed properly. When it comes to these feelings, parents play an important role in helping kids get their feelings out rather than holding them inside. If parents are uncomfortable with their own emotions, they naturally don't feel at ease with their kids' feelings either. Thus parents need to be adept at expressing their own depression/sadness, anger, guilt, fear, and grief as healthy role models and witnessing these emotions in their children.


Have you ever noticed that small children are usually either bubbly and happy or crying and sad? They haven't learned to hide their feelings yet, so the whole world knows how it's going for them.

As children grow older, they learn to hold things in. They may be quiet or sullen or appear to others as distant. You may find your child or teen to be lethargic and listless. They may have no appetite, no energy for friends and activities. They may be tired all the time, wanting to spend excessive amounts of time in bed.

Once when I described the characteristics of depression in a parenting course, one parent raised her hand and remarked, "That sounds like the normal description of a kid going through adolescence."

Everyone in the class laughed and nodded agreement. It's true: there are times when depression and adolescence do resemble each other. Whether it is major depression or momentary depression, parents need to have regular, contact with their children to understand what's happening in their lives. You can help your children a great deal by being comfortable around their discomfort, comfortable with the fact that your child is not happy and that's okay for now, by being available and lending a nonjudgmental, kind, and listening ear.


If a parent hasn't addressed his or her own anger and dealt with it in an appropriate way, you can be pretty sure it will spill out at home, causing confusion and fear in the kids. They'll learn the lesson that their parent is irrational and inconsistent and won't be likely to share their own feelings. What do you teach your children by modeling anger in a positive way? #1-No one is wrong to feel anger. In fact, when something unjust happens to an emotionally healthy person, it's appropriate to feel those feelings. Whenever, my two daughters got mad at me when they were growing up, I invited them to blurt out their feelings to me. The rule was that they could be intense, even loud, and they could list every feeling they had--they just had to express it appropriately, meaning no bad language, no disrespectful comments, and no below-the-belt accusations. The anger belonged to them, so they were encouraged to keep their pronouns in the first person, not switching to you, you, you. They could expound on their feelings as long as they wanted to and if once wasn't enough, they could come back at it again. I wanted them to know that I would listen and consider their commentary. The goal was to get it out of their system so they wouldn't have a snarled mess of it to carry around, weighing them down as they went through life.


Guilt comes in an array of flavors...there's guilt over what you know and admit you did wrong and you take your punishment and that clears your conscience. Another kind of guilt is more troublesome...many kids and adults can feel guilty for things we never were and never did, and it makes us feel bad about ourselves. Guilt doesn't make us more effective or more productive. It only damages our self-esteem. To keep that from happening to our kids, it's our responsibility to be careful how we talk to them.

Here's what not to say: "I can't believe you stayed out late on a snowy, icy night without calling to let me know you were safe. I was worried sick." That's an accusation and makes your child feel guilty for being bad and wrong. Instead, try this: "Oh, Susie, I'm so glad you're home safely. I was worried when you didn't call. Next time, please let me know that you're okay." This teaches without making Susie feel guilty.


An emotion that everyone knows kids feel is fear. Often young kids get scared because the world is still unfamiliar to them and everything is a new experience. Having a strong bond with your kids gives you the opportunity to talk about their fears at every age. It can also give you a chance to help them learn that bravery is not the absence of fear but rather taking appropriate action in the face of fear. Whether it be encouraging them to ski down a difficult slope, speak in front of a large group of people, or confront someone about an inappropriate action, talking with your kids about their fears can help them to overcome obstacles to their success.


Grief is one of the hardest feelings. And it takes more time than most people think to process grief. Just when everyone else thinks your grieving period should be done, you're in the deepest part of it, so don't try to rush your children to the other side. Sometimes all you can do is just be there to cry with them. Sometimes there are no words, but the warmth of your body next to theirs can give more comfort than you can imagine. You never know how kids feel in the depth of their mourning, so don't pretend that you do. Often telling them you don't know how they feel--how painful and sad it must be for them--makes you seem more reliable and gives them courage to share their grief. Talking helps immensely, so be careful not to censor anything they say as they're pouring out their pain. Talk about big losses and smaller more personal losses too, like when my daughter Carol, didn't get chosen for the volleyball team, or when the guy she liked didn't ask her out a second time, or when she got dissed by a friend, or when a hope evaporated into thin air, a dream burst open, or a plan shattered...These may seem like insignificant losses, but every single one creates a small mound of emotional ashes that accumulate into a heap over a lifetime, each new loss stacking up on top of the last. These are times you want to be there for your kids, walking side by side.

About Dr. Joanne Stern:
As a psychotherapist, Joanne Stern, PhD, has spent more than twenty years counseling families, parents, and teens. She specializes in counseling on relationships, drugs and alcohol, eating disorders, and grief and loss. She has taught courses in parenting and is a popular speaker on relationship issues. A mom for more than three decades (including five years, as a single mom), Joanne has two grown daughters and lives in Aspen, Colorado with her husband, Terry Hale.

For more information, visit www.parentingisacontactsport.com

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