After an intensive pre-op process, I finally face the biggest […]
Cultivating a Trusting and Wholesome Relationship With our Children
Join us as we continue our parenting journey with Blimie Heller, creator of the “Unconditional Parenting” program, with the goal of developing a deep connection and trust with our children. Part III of an ongoing series. Part 3 of an ongoing series with Blimie Heller
Moderated by Rachel Herman
Welcome back! So… what are we talking about today?
Blimie: Today I want to talk about feelings. I truly believe that allowing children to feel and express their emotions is an important key in raising emotionally healthy adults. I also want to discuss how to separate children’s feelings from their behavior.
H&H: Love that! Let’s dive right in!
Blimie: Well, first let’s understand what feelings actually are. Feelings are sensations we experience in our body that can either be unpleasant or pleasant.
H&H: Wait. Aren’t we ever just neutral?
Blimie: Actually, that’s a feeling too; it’s called contentment. We may even feel a multitude of feelings at the same time, some more intense than others. And these physical sensations, either pleasant or unpleasant, provide insight into our needs. For example, if we are sad, our body may experience that as heaviness in our chest or tears behind our eyes or some other way. That physical sensation (feeling) of sadness is a cue that a need of ours isn’t being met. Maybe the need for care, consideration, being understood, or respected. If, on the other hand, we feel content, we will experience that as comfort in the body. That lets us know that our needs are being met.
H&H: So where are we going with this? And how does this apply to us as parents?
Blimie: So small children naturally feel and embody their feelings: They cry, laugh, scream, and jump for joy easily and almost instinctively. This is natural and healthy. The movement actually helps the body process the feelings and release it. But what can happen in childhood is that children can also learn to block or suppress their feelings rather than allowing it to move through them.
H&H: How does this happen?
Blimie: Here’s an example: If a child cries and the parent panics or demands that the child stop, the child sees that their unpleasant feeling, and its expression, is problematic so they develop a way to suppress it.
H&H: Can’t that be healthy? Like a coping mechanism?
Blimie: Not really. Suppression is not the same thing as regulation. With suppression, we block or dissociate from the feeling. With regulation, we feel and process the feeling. Whenever a feeling is suppressed, not only does the energy get trapped in the body, which can create a host of unhelpful mutations, but the child also doesn’t learn to process and regulate their feelings, which is a cornerstone of emotional health. For example, depression is a classic form of repressed emotions. Rage or aggression is often an expression of repressed vulnerable emotions. Even addiction is often rooted in trying to numb the pain of emotions that aren’t being processed or expressed.
Feelings are part of what makes us alive. They also give us the ability to connect deeply to others. When we repress them, it makes it hard for us to emotionally connect to others and dulls our sense of aliveness. Being in touch with our emotions is being alive.
H&H: So what I’m understanding is that most of the emotional issues many adults face come from not having been able to express and process their emotions when they were younger?
Blimie: It’s hard to quantify but that is often a big factor.
H&H: So how do we teach children to feel and express their emotions?
Blimie: That’s the best part: We don’t have to teach them! As children, they do it naturally! We just have to make sure not to get in the way! We need to be careful not to teach them to block or repress their emotions. We also may want to give them words to describe their feelings.
H&H: So then a better question might be, how do we stay out of the way?
Blimie: Well, now that you phrased it that way, I realize that we can’t just stay out of the way either. As parents we need to embrace our children’s feelings and stay present for the intense, unpleasant ones, while at the same time teaching them to control the behavior they may have the impulse to engage in. For example, if a child is disappointed and starts to hit another child, we can embrace the disappointment while still teaching them that it’s not okay to hit a friend.
H&H: This feels like it can get tricky. Isn’t it hard for children to understand the difference between accepting the feeling but not the behavior? Kids are pretty black and white. I imagine it may end up giving them mixed messages.
Blimie: In my experience, it doesn’t give them mixed messages, but yes, it is a bit nuanced and may be confusing for parents at first because they can struggle to understand how to allow children to feel their feelings but teach them to control their behaviors. Also, as parents we sometimes panic when we see outbursts of inappropriate behaviors. We worry that our child will end up being aggressive or a bully, so we rush to eliminate the behavior instead of working toward teaching them how to manage their behaviors when they feel intense emotions. We need to understand that inappropriate behaviors don’t need to (can’t!) be eradicated immediately. They are primitive and childlike expressions of emotions. Mature and appropriate
expression of emotions takes time to develop and learn and it really helps to be okay with that process.
H&H: Can you give us an example of how you would react to a child who is hitting another child, breaking things, or slamming a door in anger?
Blimie: Sure. Before we talk about how to deal with the child’s feelings and behaviors, I want us to realize that our child’s behavior, and possibly even their feeling, might trigger intensely unpleasant feelings in us. So it is helpful for us to acknowledge and process our own feelings too. We might be uncomfortable with our own vulnerable feelings so we need to be patient with ourselves.
H&H: Okay, that makes sense. So then what do we do about our out-of-control child? Blimie: Safety is number one. If you are witnessing the behavior you step in and physically stop the behavior by blocking them, removing the object, or removing them and bringing them to a safer space. Then you move directly to empathizing with the child. “Are you so upset because he took your stuff without asking?”
The main thing to focus on is maintaining safety without rejecting the feeling. And then, if you have the presence of mind, and aren’t feeling triggered, you can help the child process the feeling by simply being there and holding space for the child’s feelings.
H&H: What does holding space for the feeling mean? And does this mean we have to agree with all of our children’s feelings?
Blimie: It means to be emotionally present for what our child is experiencing, to listen and try to understand where they are coming from. We all yearn to be seen and heard in what is happening for us. This is empathy: just listening to what they are expressing, either verbally or
non verbally. We can do this silently or we may also want to express words to re-formulate what we imagine they are experiencing, so we might say something like, “Yeah, do you feel so frustrated and upset hearing me tell you to turn the screen off right in the middle of what you are watching?”
Keep in mind that feelings aren’t right or wrong. They simply are. Being present for the feeling and listening to their experience doesn’t mean we agree with what our child is saying. It simply means we are listening.
There’s definitely a time and place to help the child see things from a different perspective, once the feeling has been listened to and felt/processed.
H&H: Does this work with teens? A lot of teens don’t want to express their feelings to their parents and they don’t appreciate it when their parents start “analyzing” or playing therapist.
Blimie: This is true, especially with teens who aren’t used to having the room to express their feelings freely. I also want to clarify that empathy is not analyzing our child’s feelings or asking things like “How do you feel?” It’s simply listening with your whole being and sometimes using words to make sure you are understanding them correctly. So be respectful and follow their lead. We don’t want to push our agenda of “feeling and expressing emotions” onto them. We can be there silently listening or we can reformulate to see if we are understanding them.
We can say something like, “Yeah, you really don’t want to have to be home at midnight while all your friends get to stay out late? You’re mad and resentful that I expect that?”
By asking them, we make sure we are understanding and not assuming that you know what they are feeling better than they do.
Keep in mind that if your teen stops you while you are reformulating what they said, and says something like, “Stop talking like that,” that’s okay; welcome that feeling as well. You can even say something like, “Yeah, you really don’t like that I’m guessing how you’re feeling?” Listening to what they have to say can give us valuable feedback on what we are doing that our child isn’t appreciating. (I’ve learned a lot by doing this!)
H&H: This sounds like great advice! Any parting words for us?
Blimie: Feeling all our feelings means allowing ourselves to touch our vulnerability, which can be a vulnerable experience. Expressing those emotions for others to see can also be very vulnerable because it’s an expression of our truest selves. So it can feel scary at first. To us and to our children. So remember that anything new will bring resistance. Resistance to feeling or expressing emotions is just another sensation and another feeling! It doesn’t mean that you are doing something wrong. Try not to take it personally if your child has difficulty with it at first. It takes time and practice.
When children feel that they can feel and express their emotions safely, without judgment and with our support, they ultimately learn to be emotionally regulated. This can help them grow up to be adults who are able to process, understand, and express their feelings and ask for what they need in a healthy manner. This helps them in every area of life and in every future relationship.
H&H: Thank you, Blimie! Looking forward to continuing this conversation.