Many parenting education programs talk about feelings—why the emphasis? Are they advocating that we let our feelings dictate everything we do? Or that we encourage our children to let their feelings be their only guide?
Actually, by identifying feelings we help children learn to control their actions, and to behave in responsible and socially acceptable ways.
Here’s why it works: When we aren’t consciously aware of our feelings, or when we ignore them, feelings are more likely to influence our actions than when we identify them. We may act without thinking. Identifying feelings helps us calm down and think about how to act.
One useful way of looking at feelings comes from Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication https://www.cnvc.org/
He writes, “Feelings are like indicator lights on a car’s dashboard.” Unfortunately, feelings are not usually as specific as the light that signals the gas tank is almost empty. That’s why most of us need guidance and practice in identifying our feelings. That’s why most parenting education programs spend time on identifying feelings.
It may help to think of our brains as our emotional brain and our problem-solving brain. We need both parts of our brains. Feelings are in our emotional brain—our basic survival brain. They turn on like a warning light when something is important to our survival. When we let ourselves be aware of a warning light, we can use the problem-solving parts of our brains to figure out why it’s on, what we need, and what we want to do to meet that need.
Wait a minute—survival? My child is throwing a fit because her brother knocked down the tower she was building. That’s hardly a threat to her survival. Actually, from the emotional brain’s point of view, it may be. We all have needs: oxygen, food, safety, and many others. In order to get those needs met we have to have some control over ourselves and our environment. Children are born with a drive to gain control because that’s something they’ll need in order to get their other needs met. Not having control over that tower is a threat to her need for control. Because she is a child, her emotions and reactions are more primitive (that’s why she needs parents). According to Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, co-authors of No-Drama Discipline and The Whole Brain Child, at certain stages of development, the emotional part of the brain is more dominant, thus children are more likely to get upset.
Other threats to survival (hunger, fatigue, fear) contribute to an emotional reaction. And some people are more intense than others. (I confess to having similar reactions to trivial issues at times as an adult.)
Identifying feelings helps us (and our children) in several ways:
- It requires us to focus attention on the child (or ourselves). We can’t assume we know exactly what’s going on, and our response needs to be tentative, “sounds like you are really frustrated.” Just being attentive, without directing or demanding, helps us figure out what’s really going on and helps a child to calm down.
- Giving the feeling a name conveys that we understand what the child is experiencing and that we and others have experienced that same sensation. Learning that also helps the child calm down.
- Giving a name to an emotional sensation engages our child’s thinking brain. That helps the child calm down and be better able to think and choose how to act.
By acknowledging the emotion, by giving the feeling a name, you can help a child to learn to control his or her actions and behavior. According to research by Siegel and Bryson, when we help a child in identify feelings, we help that child’s brain develop.
Yes, sometimes we have to intervene immediately to protect children from hurting themselves or others—but, once everyone is safe, we can help identify feelings. We can calm down. We can use our problem-solving brains to figure out what needs to happen next.
Originally published on ParentingSuccessNetwork.org