Today’s post is the fourth 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.

Shout acting

Humans are great imitators and one of things we can imitate is an emotional reaction—even if there’s no real underlying emotional experience.

Professional actors get paid to do this, often drawing on past emotional experiences to portray the “present” emotional reactions of their character. But actors aren’t the only ones rewarded for acting out an emotion that is not fully felt. Some children learn early in life that certain emotional displays will produce a reliable payoff, at least among family members or friends. Some children learn to show “I’m falling apart and can’t stand it, so you better rescue me”. Others learn “I’m really mad and likely to hurt somebody if I don’t get my way”.

I should clarify that these are not “faked” emotions. There’s no intent to deceive. These are instrumental emotions, behaviors that began as a way to deal with strong feelings or blocked goals but evolved into tools for influencing others. Over time, it becomes harder to tell the difference between instrumental emotions and authentic emotions. Others can tell more easily than we can, which is why instrumental emotions often “work” with family members but not with folks outside the home. 

It’s also important to note that kids aren’t the only ones who use instrumental emotions to influence others. Parents and other adults are quite capapble of doing this too.

Families can really suffer when its members are packaging unreasonable demands in strong emotions. It’s bad enough when kids do it; it’s particularly toxic when parents do it.

Imagine a mom inconvenienced by her daughter’s plan to go to her friend’s house — a plan that mom had previously agreed was ok. Because mom is inconvenienced, she might be tempted to show anger, which could scare her daughter into staying home. Alternatively, she could display hurt, which could lead her daughter to feel guilty about leaving the house. Either way, it won’t be easy for the daughter to separate mom’s emotions from the unreasonable demand to stay home.

How many children will be able to say, “Mom, I know that you’re upset about me going to my friend’s house. I realize it’s an inconvenience for you. And I can see that you’re hurt and angry. But we agreed to this plan earlier, so what I’m doing is not unreasonable.” A co-parent might have some success delivering that kind of message, but even then it will be difficult because the co-parent could be seen as undermining the partner’s parental authority.

If you think you’re a parent who might be misusing instrumental emotions, here are a couple of tips.

First, talk to another parent who you trust. Tell them you need their honest opinion and constructive feedback. You might say it this way, “Do you ever see me using my emotions to get my way, maybe by looking sad and making my children feel guilty or by scaring them with my anger?”

Second, think about times when you showed anger or fear or sadness around your children. Look for any patterns in how you manage and display those feelings. You can also ask your children what it’s like to see you angry, or scared, or sad. Look for more adaptive ways to manage feelings that are being used to influence others. Are there better “scripts” you can use to express what you’re feeling? 

The wise parent tries to live in this world: “Although I felt _____ (angry, sad, etc.), I did ________ (some healthy act).”

The unwise parent settles for this kind of world: “I did ________ (some unhealthy act) because I felt ________ (angry, sad, etc.).”

Wise parents teach their children: “Just because you feel ________ (angry, sad, etc.), doesn’t mean you can do ________ (some unhealthy act).”

Unwise parents teach their children, often without meaning to: “If you feel ________ (angry, sad, etc.), then you’re free to do ________ (some unhealthy act).”

When I discuss this with parents, I ask them to picture two extension cords plugged together. One cord is what they’re feeling and one cord is their behavior. I suggest that rigidly keeping these two cords connected is unhealthy and needlessly constricting.

I have them imagine unplugging one cord from the other, separating how they feel from how they act. This approach can give them the freeedom to feel and the option to act wisely. Feelings don’t have to dictate their behavior. 

As parents, it’s important to remember that we have the ability to feel our feelings and act wisely; we don’t have to be slave to our emotions.