Column: The problem with emotionsMarch 30, 2021
By Mary Ruth Branstetter
Youth First Inc.
A common problem many of us experience is an inability or unwillingness to appropriately address our powerful emotions. Most of us want an outlet where we can express our feelings, but sometimes it can be a struggle to find someone who will truly listen and understand.
I believe this is a problem for both adults and children. When we copy behaviors that we grow up with, we sometimes learn unhealthy methods of expressing how we feel.
For example, if a child is told not to cry with phrases like, “Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” they learn to keep important feelings bottled up.
Another example of how we learn from our surroundings might be how we cope with frustration or anger. If anger was never talked about in the home or was only displayed in an aggressive manner, those behaviors may be learned and repeated as a normal reaction to upsetting situations.
Occasionally the opposite stance may be taken such as, “I am never going to deal with feelings the way they were expressed in my home or by my role models.” This too can be unhealthy, leading to passivity and stuffing of true emotions.
Repressing feelings can only work as a coping skill for a certain amount of time before problems start to surface in your personal relationships and/or through physical and mental distress. Such distress may take the form of overeating, over-spending, depression, anxiety, repeated health problems, or self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.
Trying to teach our children healthy ways to express their feelings is becoming a critical skill. It is important to begin encouraging children to be honest about their emotions at a young age, as our children are exposed to external influences early in life.
Young children may or may not be emotionally ready to understand some of these influences in a healthy manner. For small children, this may result in some form of regression, acting out in anger or destructive ways, or development of unexplained fear.
Some of our kids are modeling what they see in social media or video games as a way to handle conflict, hurt feelings, competition or disappointment. These forms of media may disrupt our children’s ability to learn how to carry on a conversation, resolve a conflict without aggression, read another person’s body language, or recognize basic social cues. The inability to grasp these communication skills can eventually leave a child emotionally stunted.
It is never too early or too late to ask your child about their feelings. This is a perfect time to take the opportunity to help your child process emotions in a way that helps them feel better. If you are unsure how to do this, there are many books for all age groups on feelings and healthy coping skills at local libraries, bookstores and online.
Do not be afraid to consult with a mental health professional for guidance. This is an investment in your child’s long term emotional and mental health. The way your child learns to address their emotions now will impact the rest of their lives in terms of personal relationships, academic success, career success, physical health and positive self-worth.
Mary Ruth Branstetter, LCSW, LCAC, RPT is the Youth First Social Worker for St. Joe Catholic School in Vanderburgh County. Youth First Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening youth and families, provides 64 Master's level social workers to 92 schools in 11 Indiana counties. Over 60,000 youth and families per year are served by Youth First's school social work and after school programs that prevent substance abuse, promote healthy behaviors and maximize student success. To learn more about Youth First, visit youthfirstinc.org or call 812-421-8336.
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