Dr. Allison Chase recently spoke to a group of parents in Austin, Texas about the importance of managing emotions and behaviors as a parent. That is, controlling your feelings around children when they are clearly distraught. Social and emotional development for young children is extremely important, and parents play a monumental role in shaping the way children learn to manage their emotions and behaviors. It’s easy to emphasize when your child is overworked or anxious, but knowing when to walk away and tolerate your own feelings is vital in developing the way your child manages theirs.
Dr. Chase further explains that children often aim for what she refers to as “emotional empathy”. That is, they seek the same discomfort that they’re feeling in someone else (typically the parent or caregiver). It is much like the famous cliche “misery loves company”. Children, like adults, can experience intense and uncomfortable emotions, but unlike adults, they don’t always know how to manage them. As a result and often without full understanding, they often aim to evoke those same feelings in their parents. The problem with this is that it doesn’t result in a positive outcome. More times than not, the parents get riled up as well and the end result is everyone being upset. Children emulate the behaviors of their parents. If parents can model appropriate emotional expression and tolerance, children have more opportunity to learn the very important skill of managing or tolerating their own negative feelings.
How to Manage These Feelings
As hard as it may be, often times the best solution is to simply walk away from the issue at hand. Understandably so, it’s difficult not to engage because you feel so much for your children, but it’s imperative, for you and the emotional growth of your children, to gather your feelings personally. It’s okay to say to yourself, “This is not a useful interaction.” Kids read their parents like a book, so watch your own reactions carefully. From the expressions on your face to the tone of your voice, children are keenly aware of how you handle situations. Below are a few key suggestions for controlling your reactions to situations:
- Don’t overreact – It’s okay to feel empathy for your children’s feelings, but know how to keep your reactions in check.
- Understand the difference between emotional comforting and giving in – There is a fine line between comforting your child and avoiding conflict because you don’t want to have to see them so upset. Remember how essential keeping boundaries and limits are for your children. You can still be empathic and understanding about how upset they are; however, be sure to stay clear and firm on the limit you are setting.
- Be aware – If you are aware of your own emotional reactions, it will be easier to keep them in check during an issue with your child. Identify feelings that are uncomfortable for you, and learn how to deal with those feelings separately.
We can’t stress enough how important it is to know how to manage your feelings as a parent. It helps shape the way your children manage their feelings and develop emotionally. Avoid succumbing to this “emotional empathy” that your child might seek, and know that it’s okay to walk away from situations that may get everyone worked up and result in a negative outcome in the end.
*Dr. Allison Chase is a Licensed Psychologist in private practice in Austin, Texas. She works with children, adolescents, young adults and families specializing in mental health issues, eating disorders, parental training and education, and family or team-based therapy.