“Only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye” (The Little Prince)
In a photographer’s studio in the town of Oaxaca, Mexico, the walls are full of pictures of children smiling, laughing, acting shy, angry or crying. When the owner is asked why he captures all of these emotional expressions he replies they are part of life and the parents want to have pictures to reflect this. His statement is captivating especially upon considering the happy snapshots typically adorning such walls. Where do all those unhappy pictures go – the frowns, tears, and children’s backs turned in protest and defiance? The pictures seem to more readily capture a child’s emotional life rendering the happy snapshots one-dimensional, limited, and truncated upon reflection. Do the pictures on these walls translate into a similar invitation for expression in the children’s homes? What do these pictures have to tell us about our relationship to children’s emotions as well as our own adult sized ones?
We can no more prevent our emotions from rising inside of us than we can prevent the sun rising each morning. The presence of an emotional state indicates we have been activated by something in our environment – we are stirred up. Emotions are something humans share in common with other mammals and are instinctual in nature with chemical and physical activation in the body. As Pascal (17th century) said, “the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of”. Emotions are not feelings. Feelings are the names we give emotions; our subjective appraisal of what is stirred up inside of us. The process of bringing these instinctually driven, emotional experiences under conscious control of the pre-frontal cortex (where we think before we act), starts to unfold in the early years and continues well into adolescence. It is the development of integrative and executive functioning in the pre-frontal cortex that allows us to experience more than one feeling or thought at a time giving rise to more self control beginning at approximately age 6. It is part of our human nature to have a relationship and increasingly conscious awareness of our emotions, separating us from all other mammal species. The question remains – what is the role of adults in helping kids develop a more civilized expression when stirred up by their emotions?
Humans are born with a bias to express themselves and to release content stirred up within their emotional system. Our clichés capture this bias with expressions of, “I must follow my heart” or “go with all of my heart.” The role of expression is partly instinctual and serves the purpose of helping us ‘digest’ all that we have ‘ingested,’ particularly when it comes to emotional content. James Earl Jones once said, “One of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart you can’t utter.” We have many forms of expression from the non-verbal cries of a baby, to the biting and stomping of the toddler, to the eye rolling of the teenager. We can also express ourselves through language as we often tell our preschoolers to do, “use your words instead of your hits.” The gateway to the heart is through the mouth and the words we use help reveal its content. When my 7-year old had to have a needle, instead of running away, kicking and fighting she sat still as they drew her blood and screamed at the top of her lungs – ough, ough, ough, ough! Moving wasn’t an option but channeling her pain into words was (albeit terrifying a few people waiting for their needles too). Helping our children verbally share their heart content is a critical step in helping them develop a more civilized way of being in the world when stirred up.
So why is that despite being born with a bias to express ourselves we can be plagued by difficulties in finding words for our heart content? Sometimes we resist our feelings – we may not recognize them, want to admit to them or push them away. The problem lies not with our emotions but with the relationship we have with them. Emotions are neither right nor wrong, they just are part of the beautiful complexity of our human nature and interaction with the world around us. How we come to express our emotions in ways that don’t violate others while making room for their release is the question at hand. It is a puzzle that is well worth figuring out for the sake of our children’s mental and physical health as well as their long term potential to form healthy relationships. Building healthy friendships as well as marriages/partnerships are all affected by one’s capacity to be fully present and act with integrity where the heart is concerned. The capacity to recognize and name one’s feelings also fosters personal growth over a life span. The more we can put into words the more we will cultivate a relationship with ourselves and the less likely dark spaces will grow inside where awareness should reside. Too many people live and suffer in isolation, separated from others because they cannot or do not share the contents of their heart.
What gets in the way of learning a language of the heart?
What gets in the way of helping our children learn a language of the heart? First of all there are developmental challenges including being born with a limited set of perceptions and emotions. Children express themselves non-verbally to start with emotions developing faster than words. Finding words to express all that is stirred up requires support and groundwork beginning with reflecting feeling names for emotional experiences – sad, frustrated, disappointed, ashamed and so on. If you can’t name something you can’t have a relationship with it. How can we begin to even figure out what to do with our jealously, envy, disappointment if we don’t have a name for it? Names imbue meaning, they start a conversation, and are a way to make sense of an experience as well as provide room for having a relationship with them. One day my child told me her “stomach felt like it was making butter.” That churning feeling was explored with the faces of apprehension, worry and fear appearing in relation to all the changes she could see on the horizon. She could not begin to wade through all of these emotions without first putting a name to them.
Children can sometimes resist and hide their emotions especially if they believe approval from significant others will be otherwise. The idea that ‘good girls are nice and don’t talk back’ or ‘brave boys don’t cry’ continue to infuse adult messages increasing the need to repress emotions that run contrary. If we get caught up in being nice and brave one wonders where all the not-so-nice or fearful feelings go? We also live with a false belief that the expression of an emotion will lead to increased actions based on them. Research on the other hand suggests the expression of emotions actually leads to diminishing their overall effect and need to act. When we try to cut out troublesome feelings, the upset, the frustration will need to go somewhere and the question becomes where does this energy go? When our emotional systems are activated and emotional expression blocked, the energy can become stuck and escalate thus eroding overall expression and spontaneity for life. Stuck emotions lead to disarray. Our words need to be congruent with what is within our heart. Without this integrity we pollute ourselves, living in the shadows of our authentic self.
Emotions drive psychological development from early childhood to adolescence. While a young child may be learning feeling words for their emotions, teens are trying to make sense of all of the mixed emotions they experience. One part wants to become their own person while another side is alarmed by the growing separation from parents. There are signs everywhere that children, teens and adults are trying to numb out and be distracted from their feelings by from overeating, medication, drugs and alcohol, to screen and technology overuse. When we stop feeling we stop growing and can become prone to acts of uncaring and selfishness, as exemplified by the bully. With little remorse, shame or caring bullies engage in daily acts aimed at exploiting the vulnerable. Hearts were meant to feel deeply – not grow hard and cold. Hard hearts are a response and form of protection against the vulnerability of living in a world that is no longer safe or is too wounding emotionally or physically. When caring sets us up for getting hurt there is a sacrifice play as Dr. Neufeld states and the brain chooses survival over feeling. When our feelings start to disappear the world becomes muted and the colours of the emotional world diminish. Into a world of grey we can slip quietly, where not feeling becomes a place of refuge, not by choice but by necessity. It is only through gentle, caring nurturance we can rescue someone from their muted world by beckoning them and convincing them the world is safe again. Keeping our kids hearts soft is one of the most important things we can do as parents. Their capacity to feel a full array of emotions and express what is inside will continue to drive their growth and maturity over a lifetime.
Helping children and teens share their heart content
How can we keep our children’s hearts soft and emotional content flowing? We must do more than just help them learn names for their feelings, there must be enough contact and closeness that allows for the safety of revealing vulnerable thoughts and feelings. We may be born with a bias to express ourselves but we must also have someone to entrust our secrets to. To share our secrets we must first give our heart to someone so that the desire to be known and understood creates the yearning to share what is within. When we share our feelings the relationship deepens and we feel at home in their care with a strong sense of belonging. As Carl Jung said, “One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings …. Warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.” Attachment is what draws our kid’s heart content out and into the spaces in-between us where we connect. It is our generosity and invitation they must feel along with room to express what is within their hearts, unfettered by our perceived reactions and impressions of their heart content. Sometimes the hardest emotions to deal with from our kids are the ones we struggle with most inside ourselves. If there is little room for our own tears and imperfections it will be hard to find room for theirs. How do we convey to them their emotions are neither right nor wrong if we stand in judgement and carry shame where ours are concerned?
Sometimes our response to our kid’s emotional content conveys there is no room or desire to hear more. We can discount their feelings with statements like, “it’s no big deal, just go outside and play” or “don’t worry about making mistakes, it is just part of learning.” When we overrule or deny their feelings it will not create the space where one recognizes, names, and can come to terms with one’s fears, desires or frustrations. Other unhelpful responses include attempts to rationalize feelings away through logic. “Don’t let what people say bother you, their words can’t hurt you.” “What do you mean I never buy you anything? Why are you do ungrateful … the other day I bought you …?” Our feelings cannot be simply explained away, in fact we need to look at our jealousy, sadness or loss in the light of day in order know them, find a way through, and shed tears for all that is stirred up within. Further unhelpful responses to heart content include prescriptions on how they should handle something, seizing the opportunity to teach a lesson about life. “If you would keep your things more organized then you would know where to find them when you needed them.” What would it look like for a teenager to be held in their experience of frustration and sadness in not being able to find something – perhaps their emotions might teach them something more powerful than we could ever convey. Finally, sometimes we try to protect our kids from certain feelings that are routinely part of life, like when they aren’t invited to the birthday or have to face the loss of a cherished pet. We try to advert their eyes with promises of other treasures instead of helping them find and name what treasure was lost, thus avoiding all the tears that must be shed. If we do not lead our children to their vulnerable feelings and encourage a relationship with them then who will?
Helping our kids convey how they feel requires much patience and time on our part. We can communicate a desire to know what is within them in many ways, from the warmth of our presence, to active listening and mirroring their experiences, (e.g., “you seem really grumpy this morning, I am wondering if you are thinking about your dentist appointment and the cavity you have to get filled)”? It is not enough to simply reflect their hearts content we must also convey we can handle their emotions. Some children experience intense emotions due to inherent sensitivity sometimes overwhelming adults in their life. For a child to share their heart’s content they need to feel we can take all of them – that they need not make themselves smaller in our presence because they are too much to handle.
Heart Content and Maturity
A rich and varied emotional life is what gives our time on earth its fullness. It is behind our overall expression, spontaneity and full engagement in our lives as well as in the quality of relationships we have with others. As Albert Einstein said, “There are two ways to live; you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.” The capacity for congruence between our heart and our mouth is at the root of personal integrity and authenticity. When we do not honour what is within, we can alter ourselves to please others thus diminishing and polluting ourselves. We must reconcile the need to reveal ourselves with a world that doesn’t always have the time, space or desire to know what it is within us. The answer is not to openly broadcast oneself to the world but rather to nourish and sustain vulnerable relationships where we can share our hearts content, where we can be seen, heard, and loved for who we truly are. Without a relationship with oneself it will be hard to enter into deep relationships with others where we can truly give the gift of ourselves. If we cannot make room for our own emotional experience how can we really make room for another’s experience inside of us. If there is no room in our heart for another we cannot offer them a place of rest, refuge nor satiate their need for belonging, significance, love and being known.
We must help our children and teens know themselves by making room for all that is stirred up inside and guiding them through this strange and foreign land. When they have names for their emotional experiences they will be able to make sense of them and sort out what to do with their frustration, jealousy, and disappointment. When they have a relationship with their inner experiences they will be able to enter into deep meaningful relationships with others where there is interdependence, communion, and sustainability. To share ourselves we must first have a self to share – a heart that feels, a mouth that tells, and a belief that the richness in life comes from experiencing it in a vulnerable way. It takes time and patience to help our kids get there but a journey that is well worth the wait in gold.
Copyright Deborah MacNamara, PhD, Kid’s Best Bet – Dr. Deborah MacNamara is a counsellor in private practice and on faculty at the Neufeld Institute. She works with parents, educators, child-care and mental health professionals in making sense of kids from the inside out. See www.macnamara.wpengine.com or www.neufeldinstitute.com for more information.