Do You Tell Your Kids What They Should Feel?

Parents often want kids to feel differently about something. The kids dislike a family member they’re supposed to love. They don’t enjoy an activity their parents sign them up for. They’re disgusted with healthy food, bored with school, and gripped by fears that make day-to-day life more difficult.

A common response from parents is: “You shouldn’t feel that way.”

Often, parents will present their kids with a different option: “You should feel happy. You should love your uncle (or grandma, or whoever it is the child dislikes). You shouldn’t be afraid.” Parents may also make unhelpful comparisons. “I never felt like that when I was your age! Your brother likes playing sports; why don’t you?”

Telling kids how they should feel usually isn’t helpful. The emotion doesn’t simply vanish because you want it to. At best, kids may temporarily suppress it. Over time, they may also learn that it’s pointless to share their feelings with you, because what you’re interested in are the right emotions felt at the right time – not the inconvenient or upsetting emotions your kids actually experience.

What’s a more helpful response to children’s unwanted feelings?

Figuring out why they feel a certain way

Sometimes, the reason is silly or not deeply meaningful. It could be that they’re tired at the end of the day or grumpy because they haven’t eaten. Other times, they have a legitimate reason for not liking someone or not wanting to go somewhere; it may even be a matter of personal safety.

Children’s emotions are also shaped by their social circle. How other people treat them will have an impact on their feelings, including insecurities and self-loathing.

Working with them on how to express emotions

Instead of wishing the emotion away, children need to know how they can deal with it. For instance, what are good ways to express anger without inflicting harm on other people or on yourself?

Focusing on behavior

Appropriate behaviors are more important than appropriate emotions. Kids need to know when and how to ask for help, especially in dangerous situations. Many times, they need to achieve a workable compromise, such as treating someone they dislike with politeness, but without a fake show of friendship or love.

In other situations, they may simply want to stop doing something – and it’s not the end of the world. For example, even if you have your heart set on your kid playing football or basketball, they may have zero interest in either sport. Instead of repeatedly dragging them to games and shaming them for their lack of enthusiasm, help them explore other interests.

Remembering that emotions aren’t permanent

Keeping a sense of perspective about emotions is also important. Feelings and attitudes can change – sometimes within hours, and sometimes after several years. Kids may feel quite differently about something at different points in their childhood and adolescence. Emotions are important signals, worth paying attention to, but they aren’t necessarily a reflection of an unchanging truth.

Berating kids about what they feel usually causes them to bottle things up or lie about their emotions. It also makes you less trustworthy to them, because they can’t open up to you. The focus instead should be more practical – which circumstances evoke certain emotions, how do we deal with emotions in non-destructive ways, and what are reasonable behaviors for different situations?

Does Hitting Something Else Stop You From Hitting Yourself?

Self-harm can take on many forms. Among them are self-inflicted slaps and punches.

Even with the pain, bruises, and possibility of internal injuries or permanent damage, stopping this behavior can be difficult:

  • The self-inflicted hitting may have already become habitual or compulsive.
  • The behavior has been serving as a reliable (though damaging) way of coping with overwhelming emotions, such as intense fear, anger, and self-loathing.
  • The idea of seeking help often fills people with shame or embarrassment.

One way to resist and weaken the impulse to self-harm is to come up with other techniques that replace the self-harm behavior (e.g. squeezing a stress ball, doing jumping jacks, taking deep breaths and counting them, repeating a mantra or talking to yourself until the urge to harm yourself fades). Sometimes, the suggestions include hitting something else – some soft object – to avoid hurting yourself.

Does Hitting Something Else Work?

Some people try to avoid hitting themselves by hitting a pillow, couch cushion, or mattress. This seems like a good idea, and of course it’s better to hit the cushion instead of your own leg, arm, or head. But reacting to intense emotions by hitting things, even objects, doesn’t necessarily help in the long run.

The underlying association between ‘overwhelming emotion’ and ‘hit something’ may become reinforced and strengthened, and you could wind up turning it on yourself again. In the absence of a soft object, you might punch a wall and injure yourself.

Also, people often assume that hitting objects will calm them, when instead it may inflame their underlying emotions even more, making them angrier or more upset. So be careful about using this as a long-term strategy – especially as a solo strategy, and especially if you don’t want to rely on any sort of hitting as a coping technique.

This advice isn’t absolute. For example, you may find that a workout with a punching bag helps you a lot. However, there’s a difference between 1) incorporating an exercise routine into your life that you commit to even in moments when you aren’t overwhelmed by emotions and 2) heavily relying on hitting during the intense, overwhelming, and painful moments that prompt self-harm behaviors (and you’re not always going to have a punching bag nearby, though maybe a bit of shadow boxing is one alternative in that scenario).

Another point to consider is whether the hitting is part of something constructive. For example, some people cope by making something out of clay. The sensations of punching, kneading, and squeezing clay gives them some relief. Maybe this is better than hitting a pillow, because you’re creating something with the clay. The hitting is part of a productive, creative act.

In any case, here are some additional points to think about:

– Be aware of the possibility that punching other things may have drawbacks (though again, it’s better to lay into a pillow than your own body).
– Try to stay attuned to what you’re feeling when you rely on the strategy of punching or hitting something else. It may be helpful to some degree, particularly as a form of immediate release. But maybe you don’t feel much calmer or in control for long, if at all, because there’s still a difference between reacting to emotions in a less controlled way vs. responding to them with more control. And the underlying problems remain.
– Develop additional strategies for managing self-harm behaviors. Confront the issues underlying your self-harm and how you understand and respond to emotions. Speaking to a reputable, compassionate therapist or counselor can definitely help, or you can start by texting a helpline or calling one (this is something that can be done fairly quickly, even in the middle of intense emotions).

When You Tell Yourself “I Shouldn’t Be Feeling This Way”

“I shouldn’t be feeling this way” is a common thought. The question is what to do with it.

Whether or not you “should” feel a certain way is less important than what you’re going to do with the feeling. You recognize that you’re angry or sad or envious or gleefully vindictive. Or maybe you’re not feeling anything at all in a situation that seems to call for strong emotion. What follows?

If you start dwelling too much on whether you should or shouldn’t be experiencing an emotion, a few things usually happen:

  • Your stress levels go up more. An additional layer of stress settles over a difficult situation.
  • You feel guilty, inadequate, unworthy, or strange.
  • You get distracted from thinking of ways to best respond to your emotion and to the situation you’re in.

It doesn’t help that sometimes other people tell you what you should be feeling. They may want you to feel love or happiness or grief, and when you don’t meet their expectations, they don’t react well.

Focusing too much on the “shoulds” isn’t helpful. You feel a certain way. Rather than beat yourself up over the feeling itself, think about what you can do with it.

Maybe what you need is to just keep going about your daily routine. Other times, you may need to talk to someone you trust or reach out for urgent help. In many cases, what helps is to write, draw, go for a walk, listen to music, garden, read, knit, ask for a hug, work on a project, or sign up to volunteer in your community. You may need to develop habits of thinking and behavior that help you with overwhelming emotions. (For example, people often feel calmer and more level-headed when they disconnect from social media for a while.)

Brooding on “should,” however, doesn’t help you change anything. Standards of “should” may be arbitrary or based on ideas you don’t have to subscribe to. An unusual reaction to something isn’t necessarily a sign of a mental health issue (and if it is, beating yourself up over it won’t help). Experiencing emotions that are ungenerous or crude doesn’t mean that you’re compelled to act on such feelings or that your feelings will never change. Also, you don’t have to feel a certain way simply because of your sex, race, or other demographic characteristics. Even if the people around you all express the same kinds of emotions, the reality is messier. They aren’t all feeling the same way, definitely not all the time.

“But I shouldn’t feel this way…” Whether you “should” or “shouldn’t,” the fact is, you do. So what do you do next?

Understanding the Difference Between Feeling and Acting

Have you noticed how often people confuse a feeling with how they act on that feeling?

For example, when parents beat their kids, and you ask them why, they might say, “I was angry.”

But that isn’t an answer. It’s a description of an emotional state. An answer would be, “I chose to act on my anger by beating my kid.” It was one of multiple options for how they could have handled their anger. “I was angry” is not an answer. It’s not an excuse for inflicting harm.

Even if the action isn’t something as severe as a beating, it can still be a damaging choice. “Screaming at,” for instance, or “putting down.”

Another example is how people use desire as an excuse for rape or sexual assault. As if there’s only one way to act on feelings of sexual desire. Like you’re on autopilot between the first stirring of desire and the violation of another person.

Managing your emotions and exercising self-control are a critical part of being a mature person. Ideally, you begin to learn useful lessons as a kid for how to understand feelings and figure out ways to deal with them that don’t involve harming other people or yourself.

Many people unfortunately don’t learn these lessons growing up, or they learn them inconsistently and poorly. Regardless, as an adult, it’s important to work towards greater maturity. You need to distinguish between emotions and actions and build up habits of thought and behavior that will help you avoid destructive choices.

I’m not saying this is easy to do. Sometimes, the distance between an emotion and an action can seem incredibly small, even nonexistent. People are especially vulnerable in certain areas, like sex or relationships more generally, food and drink, acquisitiveness, various fears. You’re influenced by insecurities, beliefs about what you’re entitled to, ingrained behaviors that kick in thoughtlessly, and other deep-seated issues that need to be examined and addressed. You also can’t be complacent about the self-control you’ve achieved so far.

In day-to-day life, the hardest struggles often involve the power of feelings and the temptation to take the path of least resistance to them, to surrender to them fully. But that isn’t the path of maturity and wisdom.

Synaptic Sunday #13 – Neuroscience of Gratitude

What is gratitude, and what is its impact on mental and physical health? What systems in the brain are associated with it? How can one cultivate gratitude? Why does it seem to be felt and expressed so much more easily in some people than in others?

Here are some of the ongoing efforts of neuroscientists and psychologists to better understand gratitude:

1) Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude

Recently scientists have begun to chart a course of research aimed at understanding gratitude and the circumstances in which it flourishes or diminishes. They’re finding that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits…

2) The Grateful Brain

3) From the Bottom of My Heart

Put yourself in the position of a Jew during World War II who escapes to France penniless and is forced to beg on the streets. A passerby gives you roasted peanuts — your first morsel of food in several days.

You are allergic to peanuts.

Do you feel grateful? Or bitter, anxious, awkward, sad — perhaps even happy?

Synaptic Sunday #9 – Vivid Memory Edition

1) Why Does a Vivid Memory ‘Feel So Real?’

Researchers found that vivid memory and real perceptual experience share “striking” similarities at the neural level, although they are not “pixel-perfect” brain pattern replications.

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“Our study has confirmed that complex, multi-featured memory involves a partial reinstatement of the whole pattern of brain activity that is evoked during initial perception of the experience. This helps to explain why vivid memory can feel so real.”

Are vivid memories more accurate than non-vivid memories? Less vulnerable to fabrication and distortion? A memory can feel quite vivid but could be made up in part. Maybe there are certain aspects of a scene that we remember more accurately and other parts that we fill-in, even for a memory that feels like a powerfully accurate recording playing in our minds.

As always, it’s important to distinguish between the accuracy of the memory and the confidence people have in the accuracy of the memory. Are we good judges of how accurately we’ve remembered something?

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2) Psychologists Link Emotion to Vividness of Perception and Creation of Vivid Memories

Have you ever wondered why you can remember things from long ago as if they happened yesterday, yet sometimes can’t recall what you ate for dinner last night?