It’s not feelings that are the problem, it’s how they’re dealt with

Well I kinda planned on having a nice, neutral topic for my first real blog entry. You know, something really inoffensive like what my garden’s up to (need to keep track it of somewhere), but something happened this morning that got me thinking about feelings and, er, I need to express my feelings on the subject.

I won’t go into details of the incident. It wasn’t anything big, or stand-outy, just one of those triggers that really got my ire up. I grew up in a family that followed a mostly Victorian approach to emotions: stiff upper lip and all that, good chap. I assume my parents discussed their emotions with each other plenty, as they have a wonderful marriage, but they didn’t really let us see them and I’m guessing didn’t actively try to teach us to deal with ours. It’s also partly my personality, I suppose, but I REALLY suck at expressing how I feel. I’m not saying I haven’t improved greatly since I got married and just had to do it, but my husband is pretty much the only person I”m good at expressing myself to, and it took 3 or so years to get there!

As a result of not having feeling-expressing skills, when I suddenly had two babies (they’re only 17 months apart) with two sets of conflicting needs, I discovered the ugly beast sometimes referred to as “parental anger”. Let’s note that I also don’t do stress all that well. Add to that all the mothering hormones, the intense desire to meet every need of all three of us, and the inability to do so, and filter it through a sieve of – oh wait, there is no sieve, cos I hadn’t developed one. Frustration and anxiety would meet like baking soda and vinegar (all you ever need to clean your house, btw), and you have a screeching banshee.

And because this poor banshee didn’t know it was normal to feel anger as a parent, and didn’t know how to deal with it, it only got worse.

If you managed to get through all that, this is the bit I really wanted to talk about. Just needed to set the scene, so you realise why this is so important to me.

NEWSFLASH: KIDS HAVE FEELINGS TOO. And not only do they not have the ability to regulate them (like previously mentioned banshee), they don’t even have names for them. To them, it’s just this thing inside them that they don’t understand and don’t know what to do with. If they’re feeling happy, that’s generally ok. It comes out fine in most cases. If they’re really excited it can be a problem as they bounce off the walls and do destructive things. But mostly it’s the bad emotions they need help with. Sadness, rejection, anger, frustration.

I know (now) that if I start feeling angry, the best way to deal with it is to say “ooh I’m feeling CROSS!” Usually just the naming of the emotion makes me realise it’s not such a big deal and releases it at the same time, and I feel better straight away. If I leave it too long it’s harder to deal with, but that’s not relevant right now.

If I say “ooh I’m feeling CROSS!” and get laughed at or told it’s nothing to be cross about, then I get crosser and feel unloved to boot.

Now, I know kids don’t have our emotional abilities, and can’t reason yet and all that, but isn’t it reasonable to treat them like we’d want to be treated? I was told today, when saying “isn’t it better to find out what’s wrong rather than just telling them to stop?” that a 2yo can’t tell what’s wrong (ie don’t be silly). So? A mother who pays attention to her child’s needs should be able to figure out what they’re feeling, or at least get pretty close.

“Oh but they don’t have reason yet, so you’re wasting your time.” Well, firstly, who cares, it’s not like you can harm them. No one’s saying you must expect them to say “oh Mummy, I feel cross right now” at the age of 2. Secondly, if you start early, they’ll be able to use the skills when they’re able to. Thirdly, reason is not required to identify a feeling. My 2y10mo can tell me when he’s cross or sad, or can agree when I name the right feeling. (Hmm, I wonder how – is it maybe because I taught him? Oh, but it’s a waste of time.)

My final objection to this objection is that, regardless of the child’s ability to identify the feeling (my 17mo certainly can’t yet), it’s one of the most useful parenting tools I’ve come across to help ME cope. If I can put a label on my child’s feelings, and identify the cause (I’m cross because I’m irritable because I’m tired and hungry; I’m sad because I really wanted that toy and Sir A didn’t want to share; I’m frustrated because this STUPID BLOODY ZIP won’t do up; I feel rejected because you’ve been doing housework all day and when you sit down you want to have coffee and look at your computer instead of talking to me and I’ve been waiting so patiently for cuddles and a “chat” and then you get all annoyed at me when I try to sit on you) IT MEANS I’M NOT A BAD MOTHER who can’t keep her child “happy” all the time, it means I can do something about it instead of getting frustrated and angry myself (only makes the kid “act” worse, I can assure you).

Now this may sound like it’s all about me and I just want to make myself feel better. That is part of it, sure. But I’m feeling better because I’m realising the whingeing isn’t calculated especially to grate on my nerves and piss me off, and probably has nothing at all to do with me. It’s about my child’s emotions and lack of ability to control them, and what I choose to do to help them with that. It’s not about so I don’t need to feel like it is, or deal with it like it is.

Sometimes it means helping them eat something because they’re too far gone to make the choice themselves. Sometimes it’s insisting on a nap despite the protestations (which are further evidence it’s what’s needed). Sometimes it’s just holding them and saying “you’re cross because you wanted that cake and I wouldn’t let you have it. I know, it looked really yummy. You tell me how cross you are. No, I won’t let you hit me. Tell me with words or noises. If you need to hit, you can hit the couch.” Often it’s a whipped out boob and session of mim (what the boys call breastmilk) which is generally the best thing to calm them down to get them to a place where they (ok, the almost 3yo) can actually cognate again and go back to being a normal human being.

But if you think I’m going to raise better human beings by ignoring how my child is feeling and expecting obedience just cos, that talking to them about their feelings is pointless and a waste of time, you just go ahead, and I’ll be glad I’m the one raising them, not you.

5 Responses to “It’s not feelings that are the problem, it’s how they’re dealt with”
  1. Amy says:

    Well written, Rose.

  2. Ian L says:

    Agreed. Kids have got to be allowed to vent – and us parents have got to shut up and listen when they do. A hug and a kiss is often better than an interminable parental examination of “Why you are feeling like that”… Love the frank and honest description of your own feelings too.

    • Lol thanks Ian. So you have lots of kids – what age do you reckon they start being able to identify feelings?

      • Ian L says:

        Well Emily (3) sure does. And I reckon Charlotte can too – she certainly uses her baby sign language when she’s got a sore bum etc – and she shows her feelings in her face and body language pretty clearly. It’d be interesting to see if a baby could be taught to sign for an actual feeling… As far as when kids start having actual feelings… sometime in the womb I reckon. đŸ™‚

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  1. […] my first ever rant post I ranted about how toddlers have feelings and can understand them if helped. Shortly after that I […]

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