Today’s post is the tenth and final post in a series that I call “The 10 Most Useful Facts about Emotions”. I wrote this as part of a forthcoming book about parenting (You’re Not the Worst Parent in the World). My goal is to help parents appreciate what I call the “emotional hazards” of parenting. In these posts, the 10 most useful emotion facts are applied to parenting but they can be used to better understand the emotional hazards of any relationship.
Fact #10: How We Manage Emotions and How We Manage Relationships Go Hand-In-Hand
Our most significant relationships, those with family members, close friends, and romantic partners, provide us with a mix of strong emotional experiences. Other things in life also produce strong feelings—witnessing a bad wreck, listening to a favorite song, finding a mouse in our closet—but so much of what we feel day-in and day-out can be traced back to our relationships.
The emotional output from a significant relationship can be incredibly positive, but it can also be pretty nasty. When we share our life with others, we see their struggles, we feel their stress, and we know their needs. There’s a weight we take on when we are in others’ lives and when we have to coordinate our life with theirs. Sometimes their goals are not our goals, which can mean occasional conflict and recurring questions about who will get their way. You can think of stress and conflict as “relationship overhead”, the emotional costs of being in a relationship.
Think of stress and conflict as “relationship overhead”, the emotional costs of being in a relationship.
Some folks don’t want to pay that overhead, so they stay out of relationships. If they’re in a relationship, they’re quicker to bail when the emotional costs get too high. Responsible parents don’t bail from the parent-child relationship. Responsible parents stay and face the music of parenting stress and parent-child conflict. They look for ways to manage the emotional overhead.
The good news for parents is that learning how to manage the emotions generated by stress and conflict is key to effectively managing the parent-child relationship, which is the essence of healthy, wise parenting.
It’s also good news that there’s more than one-way to manage stress and conflict: Not all parents have to use the same approach. Some parents prefer to manage stress by being problem solvers, putting time and energy into fixing whatever is causing the stress. For example, if you learn that your son is having trouble paying attention in school you might meet with his teacher, search the web for helpful information, or talk to his pediatrician about possible Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Other parents prefer to manage stress by focusing on the emotional fallout that goes with stressful events. They call friends or family members who listen to their fears and concerns or they take a long walk or a hot shower as a way to quiet their mind and body.
Still other parents prefer to take a more philosophical approach to dealing with stress: They look for lessons to be learned or for the underlying meaning (e.g., a silver lining) of the stressful event.
Parents can also differ in how they handle interpersonal conflict. Some folks jump right into conflict, undeterred by the dangers of strong emotion, pushing ahead for a resolution that feels right. Others avoid conflict, trusting that time will heal all wounds. And there are even some folks who can pull off a textbook-like approach to conflict resolution: They calmly state their views, listen patiently to what others have to say, work collaboratively to generate possible solutions, and then compromise on a plan for the future. I assume such folks exist but they’ve never lived at my house!
Some folks have the naïve belief that good relationships don’t have conflict. They fail to recognize that stress and conflict can happen in the healthiest of relationships, and it’s almost guaranteed in parent-child relationships.
Because there is more than one way to manage stress or deal with conflict, it’s also possible that your way will not be the preferred way of your partner or your children. Family matters get dicey if a parent’s preferred strategies for managing stress or conflict clash with what other family members tend to use. You fix problems on the spot, but your partner spends time talking about how badly he/she feels before choosing a course of action. You want to settle family conflict quickly and bring an end tension in the home, but your son or daughter dreads having a frank discussion that could lead to more conflict and discomfort.
It’s not that one way is right and the other is wrong. These are merely differences in style or approach. But learning to live with those differences can be a challenge, and the hardest part is recognizing the differences. They’re not obvious. It’s only during times of stress and upheaval that we’re likely to show these tendencies.
Our personal preferences for managing stress and conflict begin to form rather early in life, mainly through childhood experiences and parent-child relationships. Some children learn very early that their parent is a reliable source of comfort and security when stressed. Others grow up wondering if their parent is really available and able to comfort them when they need it most. For these children, the tendency is to use bigger and bigger ways to display distress and to develop an especially persistent and strong desire for relationship closeness and security.
Some children come to have real doubts about whether a parent is available to comfort them when they need it most. As a result, they learn to take matters into their own hands, not bothering to signal distress and no longer hoping or waiting for others to comfort them. For these children, feeling distressed isn’t a time to move closer to others; it’s a time to pull away from others.
Differences in these early patterns are usually carried forward into future relationships, becoming activated only during times of stress or conflict. We might be surprised when our sweet understanding partner suddenly reacts to stress or conflict in ugly or odd ways we’ve not seen before. Becoming a parent brings its own set of emotional hazards, so if there are differences in how you and your partner manage stress and conflict, parenting will given you plenty of opportunities to learn about those differences!
Yes, life can get pretty emotional because of our relationships, and this is no less true for parent-child relationships. But effectively managing the parent-child relationship goes hand-in-hand with managing the emotional hazards of parenting. As goes one, so goes the other. This book (forthcoming) is dedicated to helping parents do both of these tasks.