Strong emotions - we all have them whether we like it or not.What do we do with them? In general, we do what we saw our parents do. . . or if we didn't like that, we try to do the opposite.Is what we're doing working for us? And is what we're teaching our kids about emotions working?
Since strong emotions are hard to deal with, we often fall into these bad habits:
- Taking it out on others. Sometimes we take it out on the person that engendered the strong emotion, such as fighting with our spouse. Other times, we take it out on someone less powerful, say your 9-year-old hitting your 6-year-old because he is being bullied at school or is upset about his parents fighting. This is called externalizing, or expressing your emotions through outward behavior.
- Taking it out on yourself. You might turn anger or inward, such as "beating yourself up" about a mistake you made or you might turn shame inward thinking about the mistake you made over and over and over again. This is known as internalizing.
- Trying to ignore or get rid of the feelings. You might try to pretend it didn't bother you. This might work in the short-term, but feelings have a way of affecting you somehow down the line. The feelings might re-emerge later as feeling anxious, depressed, or physically unwell for no apparent reason. We also teach our kids to do this, by telling them to just "be nice" and "you shouldn't feel that way." This way of addressing feelings is known as denial, repression, or suppression.
Feelings don't just go away. They must be expressed and integrated. This isn't too hard when the feelings are mild, but with strong emotions, it takes more practice and support. When trauma is involved, the feelings can be downright overwhelming and you might need professional support to reduce the intensity of the feelings. Keep in mind that teenagers naturally have higher highs and lower lows - it is part of natural development. What may seem like a minor issue to you, may in fact feel like a big issue to your teenager.
Emotional Intelligence involves expressing and processing feelings in healthy ways:
- Check your "gut" - what do you need? Identify what your body needs to express the emotion in a healthy way and regulate itself. If you're feeling agitated, you might need to take a few deep breaths or take a walk around the block. Kids need help learning how to do this. Instead of telling your angry 10-year-old to calm down - help her identify what her body needs, such as to do some jumping jacks or punch a pillow.
- Now that you're more regulated, identify the emotions. Are you just feeling angry, or are you feeling angry because you're embarrassed? It's easier to deal with the situation if you've accurately identified your emotional response.
- Process the experience and the emotion. Talk it out with a friend or journal about it. Help your child learn how to process the experience with you and come to some resolution. Identify what you need to work through the experience. If the issue is lingering or you feel this way a lot, I recommend talking to a counselor about it.