Last week I wrote about helping kids to navigate the often murky waters of their own feelings. This is an important investment of our time as parents, to be sure – but kids aren’t the only ones who need to increase their emotional intelligence. Some grown-ups still have a lot of growing-up to do when it comes to identifying, handling, and expressing emotion, too.
We adults – just like our kids – can be pretty clueless about how we’re feeling in some situations. Why, otherwise, would we pull a kid back to prevent him from stepping off a curb into traffic and express our relief at having saved them by yelling at them?! You know, the old “You could have died! I’m gonna wring your neck!” speech… * We don’t choose carefully measured words because we are a jumble of nerves and emotions at that moment that we’ve saved a child from the precipice. We can’t reasonably process all that we’re feeling – and so we express ourselves poorly.
*[Disclaimer here: it is a normal reaction to speak in violent hyperbole when rescuing children from certain death – this does not mean that we follow through with actual physical violence.]
We adults aren’t just clueless about how we’re feeling. As the above example demonstrates, we’re not always in control of our emotions, either. We don’t always express our anxiety, anger, or sadness appropriately. But letting our kids see that we’re working on being better at those things can help them to realize that it’s important for them to make the same effort. And yes, if we find that we’re consistently ‘venting’ in ways that aren’t healthy for our families or making excuses for yelling, ranting, and raging, then it’s time to get help.
I find it useful to give my family a ‘heads-up’ when I’m feeling particularly stressed or hormonal – not so that I have an excuse for losing my temper, but so that they can understand if I’m not as patient as I’d like to be. And an apology goes a long way; if we admit that we’ve behaved in a way that we’re not proud of, it puts the responsibility for our actions on our own shoulders so that our kids are less likely to take a sharp answer or impatient attitude personally. Apologising also demonstrates an important point:
We are responsible for our own actions, even when we feel that our negative feelings might excuse the poor choices we make in expressing those emotions.
We are the adults. We need to be committed to striving for emotional maturity (more on that later).
It’s important to realize, too, that there are cultural and family differences that influence where we set our threshold for emotional expression.
Brits (and British colonials) have generally exhibited a ‘stiff upper lip’ approach to emotion; that is, don’t let that lower lip wobble and show your vulnerability, but push your feelings to the side and get on with it. Latin temperaments tend towards the opposite end of the spectrum; Italians and people from other Latinate backgrounds are more likely to display their feelings in a ‘fiesta’ of passions; in those societies, it’s considered braver and more honest to express emotion than to contain it. Both of these approaches have their benefits and their costs. When we never address how we’re feeling, we risk becoming too repressed and never making ourselves truly known (nor ever truly knowing others); when we allow ourselves unrestricted expression of emotion, we can cause rifts in our relationships when we vent our frustrations in a heated moment (because seldom do these frustrations typify our feelings about the other person/people the rest of the time – they’re a flash in the pan).
Whether your family growing up embodied the ‘fight hard, love hard’ approach to life, or whether they exhibited a ‘tortoise’ mentality (duck down and wait ‘til it’s over – hide in your shell from those uncomfortable feelings), it WILL have an impact on how you behave in your own relationships today. It will also affect how you behave in your role as a parent. But it doesn’t have to be just a matter of walking in your parents’ shoes – you can make deliberate choices to achieve what you feel is a healthy balance (bearing in mind that you don’t want to be extremely to one side or the other of this spectrum).
So, what does emotional maturity look like? Well, to me it looks something like this:
- Acknowledging emotions – Accepting that you are an emotional being, and that feelings lend both colour and meaning to your existence.
- Correctly identifying emotions – “Am I scared? Anxious? Frustrated? Lonely?”
- Tracing the source of your feelings – “This feels like anger, but what am I really upset about? Do I feel ignored? Am I just hungry or tired and so my patience has petered out?”
- Avoiding blame – You’re responsible for your own reactions, and you shouldn’t allow the actions of others to control how you feel.
- Expressing your emotions in a helpful, considerate, and honest manner – not ‘venting’ or allowing your emotions to control your behaviour to an unhealthy degree.
One of the signs of true emotional maturity in a parent is not mirroring your kids’ craziness back to them. If your kid’s angry, then he’s angry – it doesn’t mean you have to be, too. When your preschooler is losing it at the gate into school, you don’t have to burst into tears along with her (even though your heart is breaking) – because you know that you have to hold it together for her sake.
And please don’t think I’m holding myself up as any sort of epitome of emotional maturity here – I am SUCH a work-in-progress on this. I’m not there yet – but I know where the goal posts are, and I am ever striving towards them.
Our kids need good role models who understand emotion and deal with their feelings in a healthy way. Parents, let’s work towards demonstrating emotional maturity as we deal with our kids and the other people in our lives who make us crazy!