The term “meta-emotion” refers to our feelings about feelings. While many of us will never have used this psychological definition in our daily vernacular, we all have feelings and beliefs about emotions, influenced largely from our family-of-origin upbringings. Take a moment to reflect on how emotions were managed in the family home in which you were raised? Perhaps you recall statements such as:
“Please don’t be angry, I don’t like people being angry with me”
“OK, no more tears now, I’m going to tickle you to laugh all that sadness away”
“Jealousy is an ugly emotion”
“Let’s just drown our heartache in ice-cream”
“Just get over your worry, other people have much bigger things to worry about than you”
“Stop talking about your frustration, it’s only going to make things worse”
“OK, let’s just let it go, I can’t stand conflict”
While these are commonplace sentiments for many of us, and most are intended as well-meaning statements, they all dismiss uncomfortable emotions, sending the message that anger, sadness, jealousy, grief, worry, frustration, and conflict are not healthy or acceptable ways to feel.
At The Family Peace Foundation, we invite parents and partners to accept all feelings as valid and normal and to appreciate that feelings and emotions are not loaded, personal, right, wrong, good or bad, but that they are simply just feelings. Nothing more, nothing less.
Once we learn to accept and validate feelings expressed by our child (or mate), we are ready for stage two in managing emotions, which is to help our children regulate their own emotions and find ways to help them problem-solve.
Regulating emotions means feeling them and then finding ways to ride the emotional wave of discomfort until it subsides. As parents, we can sit with our children, hug them calmly, take them out for a walk, sit and do quiet activities like colouring in, listen to music, pat the dog, or kick a ball. It’s also important to role model emotional validation and regulation to our children when we are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, hurt, or angry.
Of course, feeling angry isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card to punch my brother or sister. Therefore, a parent who accepts every child’s emotion needs to also follow up with teaching some emotional regulation and problem solving skills that the child can take with them in their tool kit when anger or other painful emotions return (which they will!)
Solving a child’s problem may be a tempting quick fix solution but can disempower the child to work things out themselves. Instead, once your child has calmed down, help foster empathy by asking how the other person may be feeling and what they think they can to do make the situation better and get the outcome he or she desires. Every expression of emotion is an opportunity to connect with your child and a window to teach appropriate behaviour, boundaries and limitations.
The adage that time heals everything has always had me stumped. It’s what we do with the passage of time that creates connection, insight, growth and healing, rather than the passage of time itself. And the best use of that time as emotional coaches to our children and teens is to accept and validate emotions while helping them to develop the coping and problem-solving skills needed to help them thrive across the developmental lifespan.