by Alita Blanchard
‘We are an anxious world and the primary reason is because we DON’T KNOW HOW TO FEEL OUR FEELINGS.’ Dr Shefail Tsabary, Psychologist and author of ‘The Conscious Parent’.
It’s no secret that parenting a child in the midst of a tantrum is hard work. Children are emotional, and so too are adults. However, most of us have learned to stifle our emotions, especially the more challenging ones like anger, sadness, grief, rage, disappointment, (and so on), to keep the peace. Research suggests that suppressing our big emotions from an early age can cause a build up of stress in the body which can lead to anxiety, depression, aggressive behaviour, explosive anger, and chronic health issues.
According to Aletha Solter, Ph.D., and author of the parenting book Tears and Tantrums: What to do When Babies and Children Cry ‘Boys and girls must be allowed to cry and rage. Otherwise, they harbor unresolved anger, resentments, frustrations, and fears they may act out as violence towards themselves and others.’
For previous generations, listening to children wasn’t the ‘done thing,’ and so learning to listen to your child’s emotions can feel foreign, uncomfortable, and even excruciating at times. It takes practice to be comfortable sitting with feelings. It takes lots of self-compassion and forgiveness in heated moments to remain calm, and you won’t always have the capacity to listen. We cannot be calm and present all the time.
However, when parents learn to feel their own emotions, they can build the capacity to listen to their children. I believe that learning to listen to feelings is the paradigm change in parenthood and society that we need for improved emotional well-being and mental health.
Experiencing big feelings
Above all, children need their parents to listen to their big feelings—not shut them down, fix them or distract them away from their emotions. Typical suppression responses from parents to a child’s big feelings include:
- Offering food (even though they might not be truly hungry).
- Rocking a baby—shushing, patting, or swinging.
- Distracting a baby/child with books, food, play, songs.
- Not responding to them, so a child might self-soothe and take up thumb sucking or other control patterns.
- Shaming a child and saying things like ‘Stop being a sook’, ‘Be tough’, ‘Don’t cry’ or ‘You’re okay.’
But there are ways that you can respond with more connection:
- Notice that your child is upset and look at it as an opportunity to connect.
- Just LISTEN. Without judgement or trying to fix the problem ‘I am here with you. I am listening. Tell me more.’
- Wonder what they might need at this moment? What might they be feeling?
- Label the emotions. ‘I wonder if you are feeling sad’ ‘It looks like you might be feeling angry.’
- Allow yourself empathy. What are YOU feeling? Frustration, anger, guilt, worry, numbness?
- Be present with your mind and body. Notice your breath.
- Set limits if required—loving yet firm ‘I’m not willing to let you hit me’ ‘I am listening, AND I won’t let you break things.’
- Hold space for tears, tantrums, and rage – you don’t need to fix. Again,
We don’t always have time to feel our feelings at the moment they occur. Life is busy. Perhaps you are not in a suitable environment to have a big release (school, work, transport, or a cafe), and in some cases relying on distraction and coping mechanisms is okay. But if we use these techniques all the time, we have work to do, self-reflection, healing, and education for us and our children’s sake.
When we can build an awareness of our responses, triggers and society’s ideas of the way children should be (well behaved!), we can respond more thoughtfully to our children’s emotions rather than reactively. Doing this means we can guide our children to healthier emotional awareness and expression, which builds creativity, resiliency, and self-worth in the long term.
Ultimately though, we cannot listen to our child’s feelings unless someone is listening to ours, so it might be time to find ways for this to happen. Solutions may include:
- Listening partnerships/listening time
- Women’s or parenting circles
- Therapy or counselling
- Having good, safe friendships
A path to healing
We all carry wounds and emotional pain – it is a part of life. Parenting with more awareness will likely begin a healing journey that can provide so many benefits to yourself and your family.
Steps to healing might include:
- Crying – get comfortable with your tears and know they are releasing pain and stress.
- Journal your thoughts and emotions.
- Pay attention to your breathing – slow it down and focus on a long exhale a few times a day or when your nervous system needs a reset.
- Practice a ‘daily scream’—alone in your car. Connect with an intense feeling and scream it out. It will feel confronting, and you may go hoarse. Try it anyway.
- Move, run, walk, yoga, dance, shake, jump on a trampoline. Even better if in nature.
- Practice self-compassion and talk to yourself as you would to a friend in need.
- Download a meditation app like Insight Timer and search ‘self-compassion’ and practice every day, even for just two minutes.
Alita Blanchard – The Aware Mama Alita is a mother of 4 young boys (including a stillborn son Remy) on the NSW Central Coast. She is a trauma informed Conscious Parent Coach, Women’s Circle and Rites of Passage facilitator. She provides regular mothers circles, workshops, events, listening time and parent coaching programs. Alita is passionate about creating a safe space for mothers to feel heard and seen in the intensity of their motherhood journey. She supports and guides mothers in their transformation through motherhood and helps to bring awareness to their own needs and emotions so they can feel more aligned, aware and connected to themselves and their children. www.theawaremama.com.au Socials: @alitablanchardspace Email firstname.lastname@example.org