#49: INVALIDATE THEIR FEELINGS
In my private practice, one of my specialties is working with adolescents who self-injure. When I ask when they started, they typically reply that they started cutting in their teens. My next question is; “When you were little - as far back as you can remember - what did your parents do when you were having big feelings; anger; distress; frustration that brought you to tears.” They all respond with the same thing; “I was sent to my room.”
When I inquire what they did to deal with their emotions alone in their room, they report one or more of the following; pull my hair; bite myself; punch the wall; hit myself in the head; bang my head on the floor or wall. So, in actuality they began to use self-injury when they were four or five years old to handle emotions that were overwhelming them. It was only when they discovered razor blades in their teens that their self-injury became sophisticated and attracted their parents’ attention and thus became the “designated client” (aka; “the scapegoat of family dysfunction”)
Children need to be taught how to respond and regulate sometimes overwhelming emotions. Even as the sophisticated social creatures that we are, we’re not born with innate strategies to handle distress - we need to be taught this skill.
Human beings in our present form have existed for about 150,000 years. Up until the “Rise of Kings” about 8,000 years ago, we lived in multi-generational, multi-branched families within a greater clan or tribe system that was based on cooperation and caring for all members of the group as a whole.
Children born into that caring social culture had four adult caregivers available to them at any time during the day and night; mother and father, grandparents, aunts and uncles, older siblings and cousins. These caregivers would feed, bathe, nurture, and teach each child.
Between the rise of the Kings and the industrial revolution, the extended family structure children relied on was degraded and stripped away bit by bit by social evolution driven by power, control, and commerce, yet the hardwired need for it still exists in each of us. Children have an innate need for those caregivers to teach them how to navigate the world and understand their place in it.
Yet a recent study found that due to both parents needing to work to afford a home, long commutes, and other demands on their time, most parents only spend 34 minutes a day with their children.
Children need us to help them learn, not only about the care and feeding of their bodies and how to navigate a complex world, but about their minds and accompanying emotions as well.
When children are overwhelmed by powerful emotions, far too many adults devalue those emotions; the three year old who has a meltdown because her older sister took a bite of toast before her is told not to be silly; the toddler who falls and is hurt and screams because they think they’re going to feel that way forever is told to get over it; the child who has an outburst over one of the thousands of daily frustrations they face in an unfair world is asked if they want “something to cry about”.
Neuroscientist Daniel J Siegel and parenting expert Tina Payne Bryson’s book “The Whole-Brain Child”, lays out 12 strategies to nurture your child’s development to assist them in both regulating emotion and help their brain organize. I recommend every parent purchase a copy and follow the strategies in it.
When my first granddaughter was a toddler, I watched my son apply some of these principals when his two year old had run from the living room into the kitchen and tripped (over nothing as toddlers are wont to do), falling face first onto the floor.
- My son immediately knelt down and stood her back up (get to the child’s level).
- Still holding her gently, with empathy he said; “Ow. You bumped your chin.” (name it to tame it).
- He assured her that it would stop hurting and reminded her; “Remember when you fell in the driveway and hurt your hand? It stopped hurting right?” (remember to remember).
Her tears quickly faded and he took her to sit on his lap at the kitchen table and engaged her with crayons and paper. The crisis was over and she began to learn how to navigate an emotional crisis.
Children need what we all need; for someone to actively listen to us; to have what we are feeling validated; and to be offered support. And please understand that validating someone’s emotions does not validate the cause - if someone does something foolish and gets hurt, they don’t need a lecture or to be dismissed for being foolish, they need validation of their pain.
Even though the events that cause our children distress can seem trivial compared to the challenges we face as adults every day, to the child these are new and upsetting occurrences that are sometimes overwhelming for them. Their feelings need to be validated and they need to be taught how to navigate them by those they love and trust.
Conversely, parents can continue to dismiss their children’s emotions and pay therapists like me hundreds of dollars to untangle the ensuing emotional wreckage.
I - for one - need one more generation of troubled adolescents to see me through to retirement.
Aaron D. McClelland, MPCC-S - www.interiorcounselling.com