It’s about two months since the COVID-19 outbreak changed the way we work, learn, shop, and interact. How are you feeling? If you are like me, you might be going a little stir crazy at home. I’m not used to being at home every day all day.
When writing my book, Permission To Feel, I heard from families that most people want their homes filled with love and laughter, kindness and compassion, joy, and hope. But what’s the best way to create a so-called positive emotional climate in our homes? This excerpt from my book explains how giving each other permission to feel can help.
Your family's emotional life
Excerpted from Chapter 9 “Emotions at Home”
We all arrive in this world programmed differently where emotions are concerned. Each of us has a different threshold for being provoked, activated, aroused, startled. Some of us experience feelings more intensely than others. We recover from emotional reactions at different speeds. But these individual differences don’t determine whether we will develop emotion skills. Research shows that even highly reactive kids who are raised in nurturing families can turn out just fine.
Few influences can match those of family and home. But which home?
Of course, we’re all concerned about the emotional lives of our children. We know what’s at stake—virtually everything. As we’ve seen already, their physical and mental well-being, their ability to learn in school, their future success at work, and in families of their own, all depend on it. There’s no greater measure of how we did as parents than the success of our kids in this regard. Few influences can match those of family and home.
But which home?
There’s the home where we grew up, where our emotional lives were formed. We’re not born with emotion knowledge; we mostly respond to stimuli—we’re hungry, we’re cold, we’re uncomfortable for one reason or another, and so we react. Nature provides that response to make sure we get the attention we need to survive infancy. Everything beyond that is learned in the nest.
Along the way, as we learn what we need to be an adult and to sustain a home or family, we take in the emotional experiences, like the air we breathe. We carry those emotional patterns forward with us—the good and the bad—often replicating them. And in our new home, the cycle repeats—built on the emotional foundations of the one where we started out.
Many of us go through life trying our hardest to avoid precisely that fate. We strive to be anything but our parents. And then, inevitably, comes the moment when we hear ourselves say, “Where did that come from?” Suddenly we realize we’ve been carrying our parents around inside us all our lives.
When there are two adults building a family, there are even more emotional inheritances in that home. And even if there are no children present—or you live alone—that past is always somewhere inside of you.
We strive to be anything but our parents. And then we realize we’ve been carrying our parents around inside us all our lives.
Given this, what steps can we take to create healthy home environments, places where our children and loved ones will feel supported, valued, treasured, understood, heard? Homes filled with patience and acceptance and humor and joy?
Giving your family permission to feel
Few parents today would argue with the idea that their children will do best if they’re well loved. That wasn’t always so. Early in the twentieth century, the fields of child psychology and development were divided over how best to raise children, especially on the merits of strictness or leniency, discipline, or tenderness. The president of the American Psychological Association, John B. Watson, warned in 1915 that too much love and comforting was dangerous for children and that their lives would be spoiled by cuddling.
Today, nothing could sound more misguided or damaging. Current scientific research on the attachment of children to parents, on the power of feeling seen and felt, and on the benefits of comfort, all show one thing: Children do best with demonstrative love and caring.
What is RULER?
RULER is an acronym for the five skills of emotional intelligence:
Recognizing emotions in oneself and others
Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions
Labeling emotions with a nuanced vocabulary
Expressing emotions in accordance with cultural norms and social context
Regulating emotions with helpful strategies
RULER skills help people of all ages to use their emotions wisely, opening opportunities for us to succeed in school, at work, and in life. These skills are both personal and social, such that a network emerges with positive changes reinforced.
But parents seem ambivalent when it comes to their children’s emotional lives. I routinely encounter RULER-resistant parents who think I’m advocating for everybody sitting in a circle on the living room floor and discussing their feelings ad nauseam. They see our work as overindulging their children instead of preparing them for real life.
What those parents miss is that a focus on emotion skills is about real, practical skills.
Permission to feel doesn’t mean obsessing over every time somebody is mean to us or ignores us. It’s really just the opposite—teaching the ability to get through those moments, to learn from them, and to continue to function normally. Emotion skills are a bulwark against the epidemic of anger, bullying, disengagement, anxiety, and dread in this country, especially among young people. They clear away the most persistent drags on our creativity, relationships, decisions, and health.
Permission to feel doesn’t mean obsessing over every time somebody is mean to us or ignores us. It’s really just the opposite—teaching the ability to get through those moments, to learn from them, and to continue to function normally.
Permission to feel strengthens. It’s not always easy to face the truth about who we are and to reckon with our own and our children’s emotional lives. But it is a whole lot better than the alternative: denial, overreacting, and so on. You teach your children to express their emotions by skillfully expressing yours. Conversely, if you are reluctant to express your feelings, or do so only sparingly, in as few words as possible, then that’s what your children will learn to do when they grow up. This is why we adults need to be open to learning and practicing strategies in our own emotional lives before we can support our kids.
RELATED: How Emotional Intelligence Can Help Your Child Thrive (Interview with Marc Brackett, Ph.D.)