By Mary Ruth Branstetter, LCSW, LCAC, RPT
The problem with emotions/feelings is that many people do not know how to talk or appropriately cope with their feelings. Also, a person may know or want to talk about their feelings, but it may be a struggle finding someone to truly listen and understand.
I believe this to be true for both adults and children. In that regard, dealing with emotions is like a lot of “other things” in life; we often copy what we grew up or grow up with in our families or see in society. For example, if you are told not to cry or, “Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” one learns to keep things inside and not talk or show their true feelings.
Another example might be frustration or anger. If anger was never talked about in the home or was only displayed in an aggressive manner, that is what may be learned and repeated as a normal reaction.
Occasionally, the opposite stance may be taken – such as, “I am never going to deal with feelings the way they were expressed in my home or by my role models.” This also can be unhealthy, leading to passivity and suppression of true emotions. Suppressing feelings can only work as a coping skill for a certain amount of time before problems start to surface socially, in personal relationships, and/or in physical and mental distress. Such distress may take the form of overeating, overspending, depression, anxiety, repeated health problems, or self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.
With regard to our children, trying to teach them healthy ways to talk about and express their feelings is becoming a critical skill because our children are exposed at earlier ages to influences through social media, be it TV (including 24-hour news coverage), movies, video games, etc. They may or may not be emotionally and/or mentally ready to handle or understand some of these influences in a healthy manner. For small children this may result in some form of regression, acting out in anger or destructive ways, or development of unexplained fear.
Some of our kids are learning/modeling what they see in social media or video games as a way to handle conflict, hurt feelings, competition or disappointment. These forms of media may disrupt our children’s abilities to learn how to carry on a conversation with an actual person, resolve conflict without aggression, read another person’s body language or recognize basic societal social cues. The inability to grasp these communicative skills can eventually leave a child emotionally stunted.
This may sound overly alarming or overstated, especially if you have very young children. However, think about it in terms of when they start preschool, prekindergarten or kindergarten. How will they adjust to school, learn to make friends, talk to you or another trusted adult when it really matters?
Children can experience the same range of primary emotions as adults such as fear, anger, anxiety, grief, depression and, of course, happiness, hope and joy. It is never too early or too late to take 5-15 minutes to ask your kid(s) about their feelings and how to deal with them in a way that helps them feel better if needed without disrespecting or harming another person or thing. If you are unsure how to do this, there are many books for all age groups on feelings and healthy coping skills at local libraries, bookstores and online.
Also, do not be afraid or hesitant to consult with a mental health professional for guidance. This is an investment in your child’s long-term preventative emotional and mental health that will impact the rest of their lives in terms of personal relationships, academic success, career success, physical health and positive self-worth.
Mary Ruth Branstetter, LCSW, LCAC, RPT, serves as Youth First School Social Worker at St. Joseph School in Vanderburgh County.