There is not “should” or “should not” when it comes to having feelings. They’re part of who we are and their origins are beyond our control. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings. –Mister Rogers
Five-year-old Josephine (my daughter) had spent the afternoon with an older relative and on the car drive home she was fuming.
“She always tries to tell me how I feel!”
“What do you mean?”
“When I said I’m not hungry, she said, ‘Of course, you’re hungry.’”
“Are you sure you just weren’t trying to get out of eating broccoli?”
“She also said I wasn’t sad when I said I was sad.”
It rang true. I could imagine this relative saying, Oh, you’re not sad, or Don’t be silly, you don’t have anything to be angry about. I asked, “What did you do?” expecting her to answer, Nothing.
Josephine stared straight ahead, “I said she was wrong.”
Good for you, I thought, while at the same time dreading the phone call that would accuse us of raising an impolite child.
Each of us, even children, is the ultimate authority on our own feelings. Older, wiser people might be able to coach us, credentialed professionals might be accomplished guides through the emotional landscape, but when it comes right down to it only we know how we feel.
A couple days ago I wrote a post about shyness, which is an emotional state, not a character trait, and how readily some adults are to label a child “shy” the moment he shows any reticence in social circumstances. How do they know the child is feeling shy? Maybe he’s afraid. Or he could be feeling angry, sad, or just downright surly. Maybe he’s doing a complex math problem in his head and they’re interrupting him. The truth is that no one knows how that a kid feels except that kid, but when we rush in to diagnose that emotion, we’re doing so, at best, as an educated guess.
None of us can control our emotions at any given moment. They are often triggered by something outside ourselves, but the form they ultimately take is dependent on a complex brew of temperment, experience, and the response of those around us. Most adults I know are at least occasionally challenged in the efforts to come to grips with their own emotions. So is it any wonder that young children are often mystified and confused by their own strong feelings and it doesn’t help for the adults in their lives to play the game of guess-the-feeling or start tossing labels at them. Or worse, tell them they’re wrong when they try – in a psychologically healthy way – to talk about how they feel.
Emotions are an adaptive human trait. Whenever they stray from the realm of contentment or happiness, they are functioning as early warning signals, letting us know that something isn’t quite right. Developing the ability to clearly understand our feelings is essential to our survival. When young children hear adults dismiss their emotions (e.g., “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”) or mislabel them, it’s at best confusing. If it happens repeatedly they can learn to distrust their own feelings, which makes it that much more difficult to use their emotions the way nature intended.
One of the most important things we do as adults working with young children is to learn to listen to them, especially when they’re experiencing strong emotions. I rarely see it as my role to comfort a child experiencing strong emotions, although comforting is usually a side effect of listening to that child, then echoing their words without judgment.
And while we cannot control what emotions we feel, it’s also important to learn that we are not our emotions, which is what labeling implies. Emotions are something we feel in the moment, and that moment will pass, leaving behind who we really are, whatever that is. What we can learn to control, however, through practice, is how to behave in response to any given emotion.
We may feel angry, but that doesn’t mean we hit the person who took our toy.
We may feel sad, but that doesn’t mean we have to curl up in a ball in a corner.
We may feel shy, but that doesn’t mean we have to hide behind mommy’s leg.
No one is born knowing the socially acceptable ways to react to their emotions. It’s something we learn, largely through experience. It’s no more reasonable for me to expect a 2-year-old to never hit a friend than it is for me to expect a 2-year-old to overcome her shyness in an instant and say, “Hi,” to a stranger in a grocery store. We are all, always, works in progress, and that goes doubly for preschoolers. It’s not reasonable for me to expect a young child to have mastered this any more than it’s reasonable for me to expect him to have mastered long division. Some day, yes, but real learning takes time and patience.
I was proud of Josephine because she understood her own feelings well enough to call her older relative out for being wrong. Several days passed and we didn’t receive the expected phone call about our “rude” child.
It was really out of character for this relative to remain silent, so I asked Josephine, “Was she mad when you told her she was wrong?”
She didn’t have to think about it, “No, because I smiled when I said it and told her I loved her.”