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Happiness, joy, love, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, guilt, these are some names of the many emotions we are likely to experience throughout our lives. Some of these emotions are judged to be ‘positive’ or ‘good’ while others as ‘negative’ or ‘bad’, depending upon how they make us feel, i.e., comfortable or uncomfortable.
Now, while it makes sense to not want to feel ‘bad’ and trying to enhance feeling ‘good’, avoidance of these so called negative or bad emotions more often can be the source of many psychological problems.
The idea that no emotion is inherently negative or positive is not new, but one that can be easily ignored. Especially with so many avenues for distractions available if we want to make ourselves feel better in the moment. This is not to say that using strategies to distract oneself when we feel overwhelmed by emotions, is unhelpful. It works. But if used consistently can lead to problems later on.
Apart from distraction, other ways to manage emotions such as binge eating, excessive use of alcohol or other substances, over-exercising can become self-perpetuating if ‘emotional avoidance’ is the dominant form of coping with difficult emotions and for those who are vulnerable may lead to addiction behavior, depression, and anxiety disorders.
This idea is even more pertinent from the point of view of parenting. Early interaction with parents is the starting point for children to regulate their own emotions.
When the child is experiencing strong emotions, telling them to ‘calm down’ or to ‘stop crying’ may prove to be an ineffective tool for helping them to learn to manage their own emotions.
Research in the area of emotions tells us that emotions are necessary for survival and all emotions – ‘Good’ or ‘bad’ have functions. For instance:
Fear, organizes our responses to threats to our life, health, or well-being. It focuses us on escape from danger.
Anger organizes our responses to the blocking of important goals or activities or to an imminent attack on the self or to important others. It focuses on self-defence, mastery, and control.
Jealousy, an emotion which is frowned upon can motivate us to take action for eg: Being jealous of someone at work or a classmate in school, if taken in the right perspective will inspire us to work on our own skills.
Further research in the area also informs us that Acceptance of negative emotions, in both men and women, plays a protective role in depression.
Essentially, emotions, especially the ‘negative emotions’ are our own information systems that alert us to signals about aspects of life that need attention. But emotions can help only when we learn to listen and pay heed to the signals.
The importance of being able to experience the gamut of emotions life has to offer is; not only does it make for a richer life but also makes us psychologically stronger and resilient individuals and in the long run can lead to more satisfaction, fulfillment and perhaps a more authentic form of ‘happiness’.
This process is not one step and indeed starts from childhood. Hence, some guidelines for parents to help their children manage their emotions would include:
- When children are experiencing strong negative feelings, offer them empathy and acknowledge what they are feeling – scared, angry, frustrated or bored. Validation is key. This helps the child to learn to have emotions is normal and healthy.
- Resist the urge to make them feel better, immediately. Once the emotion passes, help the child to describe and explain what lead to the emotions. Let them tell their stories of their experiences. This will help the child make sense of their emotions. Over time with repeated practice and feedback they will learn to manage it better.
- This process also involves understanding and teaching the child about the nature of emotions – for instance, emotions are temporary and even the strongest of emotions will eventually subside, like waves in the sea.
- Practice regulating one’s own emotions – everyday stress, pressures of modern-day living, and busy schedules can get in the way of even the most patient of parents. Needless to say, parents will first need to take care of their own emotional health. Practicing mindfulness, building a support network and self- care are essential. This will help with modeling similar practices in children as well.
- No parent is perfect and will make mistakes at some point. Acknowledging one’s own mistakes and meltdowns will set a healthy precedent for the child and models a corrective response to when emotions may go out of their control.
- Remembering that all instances of a child's ‘bad behaviour’ is not a sign of bad parenting, but opportunities to learn for both parents and children.
Consultant Clinical Psychologist