‘Alexa, raise the kids’!’ You may have seen this one doing the rounds on social media, but here is an original one from me, ‘Alexa, help me understand my child’s and my own emotions better.’
Even as I say this, billions of dollars are being spent on researching ‘human emotion detection.’ Technology hasn’t gone that far yet and I hope that it doesn’t achieve this feat because then we humans too will need external technological cues to understand our own emotions. And, that would be a pity!
Having said that, how well do we understand our own emotions? Are we self-aware of our emotions? Do you and I know how to tune in and gauge our emotional state whenever we wish to?
What are Emotions?
Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a scientist studying emotions for the past 25 years, shares the result of her research.
“It may feel to you like your emotions are hardwired and they just trigger and happen to you but they don’t. You might believe that your brain is prewired with emotional circuits, but it is not. The brain does not have emotional circuits. So what are emotions really? Emotions are guesses that your brain constructs at the moment where billions of brain cells are working together. And, you have more control over those guesses than you might imagine you do. Emotions are not built into your brain at birth. They are just built.”
Lisa Feldman Barrett
‘Emotions’, she says, ‘are predictions made based on past experiences. They are not hard-wired brain reactions that are uncontrollable.’
Emotions are an experience felt by humans. The use of the word ‘humans’ includes adults and children alike. The reason I emphasize this is because children experience these emotions and have the right to express them as much as adults do. And, this is where we make the biggest parenting mistake – we do not allow our children to sufficiently express themselves, especially in front of others. We tend to curb them from fully expressing their emotions by using harsh words or even going as far as raising our hands. The point we completely miss is that if ‘humans’ are not allowed to freely and sufficiently express themselves, then it becomes the cause for stress, depression, and other mental health issues.
Where Do Emotions Come From? Are Emotions Psychological?
This is another tough question. There are two different theories out there. One theory says that thought gives rise to emotion but the other psychological theory says completely the opposite. It says that emotion precedes our thoughts.
However, to me, the first theory seems to make sense. It is actually a thought that gives rise to an emotion. Although our thoughts and emotions are constantly intertwined and there may be no clear segregation, it is indeed our prerogative to nurture the kind of thoughts and emotions we wish to experience.
Let’s understand this by way of an example. Imagine, that a child has a surprise test in school. The child may experience a series of thoughts at that moment. Some of them may be, ‘Oh, no! I did not prepare for this, I am going to fail.’ or ‘Why does this always happen to me? Why can’t I be more regular with my studies?’ These thoughts will lead to emotions like fear and dejection.
However, another child may respond differently to the same situation. ‘I may not be prepared for this test but I was paying attention during class. I should be able to handle this.’ or ‘Let me not panic, I am sure I will manage. Let me take up this challenge’ These thoughts will lead to absolutely different emotions like excitement or even optimism.
Based on this example, may I safely say that our thoughts have the ability to shape our emotions? If you want to explore more theories around emotions, you can refer to this article: Overview of the 6 Major Theories of Emotion.
Let’s explore the next big question now.
What can we do to help ourselves and our children cope with emotions?
Firstly, before we even think of helping our children we must consider that we need to be in an emotionally stable condition. Once that is in place we should be able to pass on emotional well-being to our children. Coping with Emotions is one of the 10 core life skills recognized by WHO.
Here are a few pointers for parents and children to work on:
“Become the master of your mind, and don’t let your mind master you.”
Practice Mastering Thoughts through ‘Thought Stopping‘
Now that we have understood that thoughts create emotions, let’s try nipping the negative thoughts in the bud itself. Can we achieve a positive emotional state by ‘stopping’ thoughts that bother you at the outset itself?
Here’s a little song I have created that you may repeat to yourself and share with your child to keep those negative thoughts at bay:
If there is a thought,
that troubles you a lot,
Fret not, take a deep breath
Shoo the thought away,
and you’ll be OK.
Learn the Art of Letting Go
Holding on to negative thoughts creates a vicious cycle where one negative thought leads to another, creating a tangled mess of negative thoughts. This tangled mess can take one on a roller coaster ride which may leave one nauseated, distressed, and perplexed. The best way to not fall into this trap is by LETTING GO! Two simple words LET GO are an easy way to steer clear of this vicious cycle. If put into practice consistently, these two words can help one fine-tune their emotions to a great extent. Try it and see if it works.
And, should one find themselves trapped in a mess – it is possible to untangle, bit by bit – as long as you are willing to come out of it.
Give a Patient Hearing. Listen, Empathize, Discuss & Reflect
When we allow children to do most of the talking, it gives us an insight into their minds and helps us look at things from their perspective. Giving them a patient hearing, albeit difficult at times, may make them feel connected, wanted, and cherished. Giving them time and undivided attention while discussing matters is crucial. This cannot be compensated by anything else, certainly not indulging and over pampering them with expensive gifts.
Let us also understand that children have been hit hard through the pandemic. Their social life has taken a backseat since schools have shut down. With limited interaction with the outside world, the equation between a parent and child has had its own share of ups and downs.
Here is a personal incident to elaborate on my point.
A few days ago, I gave my eight-year-old son an assignment while my three-year-old son was watching TV. I quickly decided to run some errands while they both were occupied. On returning, I found my older son watching TV along with the younger ones.
Without a thought, I blurted out, ‘So you’ve been watching TV while I was gone!’
The response I got shook me quite a bit. ‘You always think that I do what I am told not to do, Isn’t it?’ And before he finished the sentence he broke into uncontrollable sobs and groaned in frustration and anger. At a loss of words, I decided to check if he had finished his work. Which to my utter surprise, he had.
I had misinterpreted the situation, jumped to a conclusion, and reacted harshly. I felt miserable. I hugged my son and apologized for my mistake.
Ever since then, I make it a point to think before reacting. Calm down, especially when I am hustling between things. A lot of times we let our state of mind overlap with our state of being. We must take time to unwind, have a sip of water, take a breath and then react if required.
Positive affirmations to oneself are crucial. ‘I can do it’ goes a long way in keeping us motivated rather than telling ourselves ‘I can’t do it’. Focusing on what we ‘can’ rather than what we ‘cannot’ will lead us closer to the accomplishment of our goals. It is better to argue the opposite with oneself. Instead of thinking or saying, ‘I will never learn to play the guitar’ it is better to harbour the opposite thought – ‘I am trying and practicing the guitar, I will surely learn it if I give myself some more time’.
Give Children Time to be Alone so They Too Can Reflect and Learn
Well-meaning as we are, as parents we sometimes feel the need to entertain and engage our children all the time. There are some popular terms for it too, like helicopter parenting, coddling father, overbearing mother. In any case, when a parent is excessively monitoring their children, paying close attention to their every move, hyper protecting them from harm’s way, and controlling every move they make, they are not allowing their child to grow. This attitude makes the child overly dependent on the parent leaving them with little scope to self-reflect, falter and learn, and even poor self-regulation and anxiety. All this affects the emotional state of a child in the long run.
Seek Help Before Mental Health Issues Escalate
Watch out for any abnormal behavioral patterns in your child. If you are spending enough time with your children and observing them regularly, you will be able to notice anything out of the ordinary. The moment you feel that your child is struggling, act. Do not ignore or think that it is just a phase and your child will soon get over it. Try and resolve this at your own level, first and if it doesn’t help, please seek professional help. If negative emotions are given a free rein and left unchecked they can create havoc in one’s life. Emotional vulnerability can in turn lead to bad decision-making. Timely intervention by an expert can help save the day. Looking at things from an expert’s point of view can considerably help put things in perspective.
“Behind every disturbing emotional state lurks a triggering negative thought. Cognitive-behavioral therapists help people who are struggling with emotional disorders involving anxiety, anger, or depression, by helping them identify the particular thought triggers that underlie their emotional responses and then helping them change how they think in order to change how they feel.”
Move Away From the Virtual World and Connect More with Reality
The technological advancement that we see today is inversely proportional to emotional regulation. We are gradually losing touch with reality. This has made understanding emotions even more difficult. Children and parents alike need to move away from the virtual world that we are immersed quite deeply into, and slowly connect more with the real world. Socializing, meeting with friends and family, spending quality family time together, engaging in activities as a family is essential for the well-being of all family members. Hands-on activities like craftwork, DIY activities, Science experiments, cooking, and baking, reading books, playing games at the playground, gardening, among others are some activities where both parents and children can equally participate and strengthen their bond.
A lot of my friends and family think that I am a calm and composed person. I too believe that I am indeed a calm and composed person and give credit to my father for these qualities. In my growing-up years, I watched him stay calm even when times were challenging. I have imbibed these qualities naturally from him.
Children have an impressionable mind and absorb a great deal by observing their parents. If we want our children to manage their emotions well, cope with stress without getting bogged down, deal with challenges without becoming an emotional wreck, and have happy and kind thoughts, the onus lies on us to be good role models for them. They are always watching us and how we react in a trying situation.