As I walk across the park I can hear a very upset child, crying loudly. She looks about three and an adult - maybe her mum - is kneeling beside her. A woman walks past, turns around, comments: "you need to teach her to calm down" and continues walking. I freeze and look at the mum. We share a breath as she scoops up the child in her arms and continues sitting there.
This is so hard for all involved.
For the child who is upset and needs support.
For the mum, who is supporting her child through upset, and maybe needs space or acknowledgment that she is doing the best she can be doing right now.
For the woman walking past with her discomfort so big she had to say something.
For me, as I witness this.
Emotions are messy.
But so is changing diapers, and we don't make a big deal out of that. We don't walk around saying "you need to make that child poop less" or "you need to make their poop less smelly".
The reason I think it is hard for us, is because we have been perpetuating myths about emotions, and some of them are now so ingrained we may be holding them as truth.
And maybe it is time to unpack them, as a lot of us - parents, researchers, teachers, and all those who care - have been doing for a while now.
The myth of calm
We seem to have glorified calm in our culture.
We aspire to calm.
We use "emotional" like some kind of an insult.
We want people to breathe through their feelings, meditate their emotions away, always be able to "calm down". I sometimes hear this referred to as "being regulated" - but being regulated is not equal to always being calm. There is such a range of emotions available to us, that are perfectly appropriate for a range of experiences we come across - why would we only accept some but not others?
Glorifying calm is also one of the reasons why parents often say that empathy doesn't work. What they mean is this: when I empathize with my child's feelings, they do not instantly calm down. And the reason they don't is because when we empathize with a child, they are able to feel whatever it is they are feeling until it is done, rather than stuff it down.
And also, you know, "never in the history of calming down has anyone calmed down by being told to calm down" ;)
The myth of positive and negative feelings
"some emotions are positive, others are negative" "here is a list of some positive emotions..."
The issue with that is that if we divide emotions into "negative" and "positive", it is almost impossible to not want to get rid of the negative ones, to not feel them, to make sure our children don't feel them. Who would want the negative in their lives?
And yet, all emotions have work to do, they arise for a reason, and they carry vital information. Anger might suggest our boundaries have been crossed, fear that we might sense some danger, sadness that we long for something. If we work hard to not feel these thing, we will miss all these precious experiences, and likely also all these vital pieces of information. Instead, could we perhaps be curious about feelings?
Longing to only feel the "positive" feelings, and getting rid of the "negative" ones might have significant effects for our wellbeing. In reality, we can't have one without the other. After all...
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine,
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so,
We were made for joy and woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go. (William Blake)
The myth of teaching and learning
We have come to believe we can teach our children what to feel and how to feel it. I have heard parents instructing children on what they "should be feeling" in the moment, as the child was so overcome with emotion they had no way of comprehending what was being said to them. I've heard this metaphor and can no longer trace where or from whom, but it is so fitting: It's like noticing that someone is drowning and trying to teach them to swim.
In the moment, we cannot "teach" the child anything - all we can do is be there for them, and survive it all with as much dignity for all as possible. And that, in fact, is how a child learns.
“Self-regulation is a neurodevelopmental process. It must be experienced in a relationship of co-regulation with another adult that is reading your cues in real time and spending hundreds and hundreds and thousands of hours giving you that regulatory experience.” Mona Delahooke (from her masterclass on understanding behaviours)
We are all emotional beings, and it is time we treat that side of us seriously.
How do you, the adult, respond to your own feelings? Do you seek ways of calming down, or do you allow yourself to feel whatever it is that is washing over you?
Do you have a support system of those who can hold you, as you are?
As always, we start with ourselves.
Mona Delahooke's website filled with resources: https://monadelahooke.com/
Janet's Lansbury's podcast on some myths around validating feelings: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2022/08/validating-feelings-isnt-working/
Robert Bly's "Long bag we drag behind us": https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5785b85b15d5dbb0fab56c26/t/60144eb382281a648bd59bb8/1611943607009/The+Long+Bag_Bly.pdf
Gordon Neufeld's fabulous course "The science of emotion": https://neufeldinstitute.org/course/science-of-emotion/