Today’s post is the second in a series that I call “The 10 Most Useful Facts about Emotions”. I wrote this for a forthcoming book about parenting. I was trying to find a way to help parents appreciate what I call the emotional hazards of parenting. So, the 10 most useful emotion facts are applied to parenting but they can be used to better understand the emotional hazards of any relationship.
#2: Emotions Contain Information That Others Can Use
Charles Darwin believed that facial expressions helped early humans (and animals!) survive because they were a way to communicate alarm and other information before there was language. When Joe Caveman spat out a chunk of food and made a face that we would call “disgust”, other cavepersons knew to steer clear of the tainted food. Today we have the gift of spoken and written language, but in some ways we’re not much better at communicating our feelings.
The greeting card industry knows this all too well. Take a look at the cards marketed to men; almost all begin with the card-giver admitting that he is not good at putting feelings into words. Sometimes I think men buy these cards to remind their romantic partners not to expect too much on the feelings front (and, oh yeah, Happy Birthday or Happy Anniversary). Women will tell you that men convey emotional information in other ways—a tight jaw, a strained voice, watery eyes, or a sudden bolt out the door. Of course, it’s not just men who do these things. It’s also women, and boys and girls, and yes, parents.
Unfortunately, emotional information that “leaks out” in this way is not clearly conveyed. The receivers get a message that is garbled, mixed, or incomplete. Instead of learning that Mom felt hurt and taken for granted when her son made a mess of the kitchen, he might hear only anger and rejection. Instead of learning that Dad is concerned about his daughter’s safety when she resumes dating a questionable ex-boyfriend, she might hear nothing but criticism and unneeded lecturing. If parents are to use their emotions to inform others, including their children, they have to first learn to use emotions to inform themselves (see Useful Fact #1). When parents routinely practice sitting with and sorting through their feelings, they can more easily convey important emotion information (their various nudges) to their children. And they are more likely to do it in ways that are helpful and not hurtful.
Emotionally charged messages like “I can’t believe you’re so stupid!” or “Dammit! I told you this would happen?!” can be transformed into messages like “I love you, I really do; but right now I’m really frustrated” or “I’m sorry but I just really disappointed. Let me explain….”
But notice what’s different about the “transformed” emotion message: It’s not just a softer “I-statement” script that parents memorize and recite after counting to 10 (although that’s not a bad alternative). The new message is an honest delivery about what parents learned from their emotions: “I’m feeling a mixed of emotions and I’m being nudged in many different directions. Part of me wants to lash out, but I also feel like crying, and quitting, and giving up, and hurting back.”
Wise parents routinely read off their emotional register, pay attention to their feelings dashboard. Wise parents use I-statements to describe what they are feeling and explain indecision or the need to take a break before deciding what to do next.
Parents who practice these steps and build them into the job of parenting are giving a tremendous gift to themselves, to their children, and to the parent-child relationship. It’s not only learning to manage emotions effectively but it’s enriching their lives emotionally.
Accurately sharing emotional information won’t eliminate times when emotions get the best of you or make a mess of your parenting. But it’ll certainly help to have options for managing the damaging effects of strong, emotion-driven parenting.