I was in the grocery store a year or two ago in line behind a man in his 60’s I would guess. He was behind a mom and her 3 or 4-year old darling little girl with a head full of blonde ringlets. Mom was putting her groceries on the belt as the youngster was eying the candy rack. It only took a few seconds before this cute little bundle asked for a piece of candy. The theatrics to follow rated a 5-star performance.
As you can guess, Mom said, “no,” and Miss Curls dropped to the floor, curls bouncing, legs weakened by the devastation of not being able to have the candy. When mom didn’t seem to notice this heart wrenching sorrow, sobs were thrown in for good measure along with the cutest little pouty face you’ve ever seen.
Still, it wasn’t yielding the desired result and reality was settling in that she was not going to get what she wanted. Sorrow turned to anger, and with that anger, the volume began to increase. The sobs turned into a demanding wail. It became the best big tantrum I had seen in years. Rolling on the floor, curls bobbing away, huge falling tears, with her sobbing and gasping for air, etc. It was pretty dramatic.
The man in line behind this duo was not impressed and barked at the mom, “Are you going to make her stop? If she were my kid, I would have picked her up and smacked her by now.” The mom just ignored the man and worked on paying her bill. When the man didn’t get the response he desired, his volume increased too. He continued on speaking harshly in the general direction of the mom and young cashier saying, “young parents these days let their kids do whatever they want and that’s why we have a world of failing adults.”
When mom still didn’t respond as she was busy trying to get her daughter off the floor and out the door, he turned to the person behind him, which happened to be me, smacking his hands on his grocery cart he declared, “Can you believe this? This is insane. Someone needs to shut that kid up.” Turning to the child, he barked, “Get off the floor and stop crying.”
In that moment, I was less concerned about Miss Curl’s screams and more concerned that this man was going to take it upon himself to try to stop her emotional display. He needed to be calmed down before he lost it.
Both the child and the grown man were functioning at about the same level. The man just had more verbal skills. They were both upset. They were both angry. They weren’t getting the result they wanted and their feelings were leading their chaotic behavior.
In the last blog, (find it here) I shared that emotions are the internal gut level reaction and feelings are your subjective conscious experience of them.
Emotions include, contempt, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise and fear.
Feelings have gazillions of options expressing a continuum from mild to extreme.
We are emotional and intellectual beings. We were created with both thought and feeling. The key to emotional maturity or emotional intelligence is learning how to integrate our emotions and feelings with our thinking and intellect. That’s the goal! That’s healthy functioning!
It’s a partnership. Across the life span, people are learning to develop both. When your brain takes in information, it causes the body to react, sometimes before you are even aware or have a chance to think about it. That’s okay. Your brain sends out multiple signals for your reaction: emotional, physical, and cognitive (thought).
It is not uncommon for a child to have a meltdown when things don’t go their way. They are learning how to identify emotions and feelings and manage all those different signals going out from their brain. While it might be frustrating to listen to for other adults, that’s part of development.
In the situation I described above, it would have been a great moment for mom to label some of those feelings to help her little one learn, but regardless, I was more concerned by the grown man.
What excuse did he have for his blow up? He was frustrated, yes, but did it really warrant smacking his grocery cart and threatening a child? Absolutely not! He did not know how to manage his emotions very well.
His display of being led by his emotions is immature at best. It’s not healthy. Similarly, stuffing feelings and trying to disconnect from your emotions is also unhealthy.
Instead, we want to teach our kids how to interact with their feelings and reflect on the thoughts, experience, or story behind the feelings. Emotion and feelings and thought and intellect need to go hand in hand. We can look behind the feeling to gain understanding. Where are those feelings coming from? What is stirring that emotion at a deeper level? What are the thoughts behind the feelings?
In order to do that, we need to help our kids (and spouses and friends) become more emotionally aware. That is, to be able to identify and put into words what they are feeling. We want them to be able to express how they feel with the wide range of possible words to describe the feeling.
Then, we want to help them learn how to integrate the two parts, to work together.
Have you helped your child not only identify and name their feelings but to then consider the source of the feeling? It’s not enough to just be aware of the feelings and ride the emotion. That leads to chaos.
We need to reflect on the underlying source. I see this with many kids from trauma. Deep down emotionally they are experiencing fear. They don’t know how to label or identify the feeling, and their associated behavior is chaotic, aggressive, or out of control. The fear is so ingrained subconsciously they have no clue that it is driving much of their behavior. What they need most is help naming and learning how to calm that inner fear.
How should you manage emotional experience? Remember this strategy EASER
The older we get, the better we should become at this as we learn or grow. But you and I both know people who are likely still responding to emotions like they did in middle school. They’ve gotten older but not wiser. They are just stuck. Just like the man in the grocery store.
Once you are aware of the feelings and able to identify the story behind the feelings, you can then evaluate and assess what’s going on in. Are my thoughts about this true and accurate? Have I fact checked them? Is there evidence to support them or not? Where are there possible thinking errors? Then, you can plan for your response.
Going back to the man in the grocery store, was he aware of how frustrated and angry he was becoming? Why was her sobbing grating on his nerves so much? What was he feeling in addition the anger? Helplessness? Anxiety? What did he think about the situation that limited him so much that he couldn’t tolerate 60 seconds of discomfort?
Once you are aware and evaluating, you can use wisdom and healthy thinking to determine what is the best course of action.
Regardless of the source, feelings matter. They help you assess what is good or bad for you, help you avoid danger and survive, help you understand and connect with others, and they can help motivate you to take the best course of action.
I want to encourage you to think about your own emotional life. How do you address your feelings? Do you experience the whole array of emotions or are there one’s you hold in or not acknowledge? How are you helping your teen to be aware and understand their emotions? If you struggle a bit with addressing your own feelings, you probably aren’t helping your teen with theirs either. What do you do as you become more aware of your feelings, especially negative feelings? Are you able to process and evaluate or are you led willy-nilly by the feeling?
Our willingness to appreciate and validate what we feel or what our child feels and then investigate the meaning will help facilitate healthy responses along with increasing connection with others. There is a healthy response to anger, pain, sadness, etc. While feelings don’t always feel good, it's temporary and they can lead to stronger connections and relationships, with ourselves and with others.
This is a very important life skill and key to interpersonal success to be able to regulate emotions. Think about people you know. President Trump, although he was brilliant intellectually, was very low in emotional intelligence, and it shut down his presidency. President Bush on the other hand, displayed high amounts of emotional intelligence and even when people didn’t like his politics, they still worked with him and stayed connected, especially after 9/11. President Trump struggled to get along with most everyone.
Teaching our kids the ability to self-regulate and use our feelings well helps them feel calm and connected which leads to feeling safe and understood. It creates trust in relationships which is essential for any relationship to flourish.
If you want your teens to be happier, responsible adults who can relate well to others – help them with their emotional intelligence. Help them be aware of their emotions and feelings. Anger and conflict are actually okay and part of every relationship. It becomes toxic when we allow it to hijack our reasoning rather than the two working together.
Once we become better at identifying the emotions being triggered in ourselves and others, we can also begin to learn how to form a better response. Look for understanding and the story behind them. Evaluate the thoughts. Does any of the thinking need to change? Are you being triggered by something from your past? Get your thinking straightened out. Don’t react immediately, take a few deep breaths before responding, or take a time-out for a bathroom break if feelings are running high. Allow yourself room to process the emotions, feelings, and thoughts, and then evaluate them and use your wisdom to determine your response. The process gets faster the more you use it.
Remember the man in the grocery store? When he escalated and looked back at me, in my calm therapist voice (which was totally not the mama in me wanting to lash out at him but wisdom prevailed) I said loud enough for him and the mom to hear, “Rough day of learning for her. Mom’s not giving in to that candy. It’s hard when we can’t get that instant result we want and our feelings feel so big. I hate when I have days like that. My clothes get all dirty rolling around on the floor.”
He looked at me like I had two heads but stopped ranting for a second so I continued on. Chuckling, I said, “She’s got great pitch though, maybe someday she’ll be a famous singer and we can all say we were the first to hear her in the Giant Eagle grocery line.” Mom smiled her thanks, quickly paid her bill, and then pulled her daughter along. The man began to calm down, and Little Miss Curls managed to pick herself up and follow her mama out of the store.
Give your teen an incredible advantage. Teach them this life skill and they will be way ahead when it comes to managing themselves and finding their way through life and relationships.
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