We’re back again this week with Nathan McTague to continue our discussion on raising emotionally-healthy boys. If you didn’t hear the beginning of our conversation, you can find it here: Episode #40.
In this episode, we talk about how to support our children when they are angry or upset. Similar to when children are little, we can use the skill of being patient and waiting, being with them to name their emotions but not trying to make anything specific happen faster. We may feel uncomfortable with them feeling uncomfortable, so we want to fix what we perceive as the problem and make the discomfort stop. Our own vagal system is preparing to protect itself and we’re feeling what they’re feeling in that moment. So we need to focus on getting ourselves back to a state of regulation so we can support them.
We can use our own nervous system to help them to regulate.
When you wait, taking your own deep breath, you make space for them to express how they’re feeling. We can really try to identify in our own empathetic network what that experience is like for them. Let’s say it’s anger. You have a sense of what that’s like for him, understanding that the anger has a place and it’s normal. He’s a young man having feelings and he’s having trouble controlling himself. You can understand where he’s coming from. Through the course of making space and listening, you may get more information about what’s going on for him. Just be with him in the moment, not trying to fix it, just listening and validating.
Our impulse may be to fix the problem and that will make the feelings stop. Try to do the opposite and push into the feelings, and that will give our kids a chance to safely, and with connection, allow those feelings out. It isn’t really about the issue, but rather emotions that are stuck and need to be released.
Physical release of emotion
If your child has a natural proclivity to go physical, you might encourage going a little bit physical. You just want to make sure that you aren’t teaching them that physical release is the only way to move the emotion. If it is feeling to them like there needs to be a physical action, some people punch a pillow. Nathan shared that he goes out and shovels something- snow if it’s heavy enough, dirt is good, but compost is the best. He goes out with a crow bar and stabs it. He doesn’t have to go physical as much as he used to, but sometimes feels a level of emotion that really needs to move, that he can’t release through crying.
Crying is still good
That said, crying is ok and it needs to continue to be ok even as kids get older. Crying is an intentional biological mechanism to help us unload stress. Cortisol is literally off-loaded into our tears. When we stop that, we’re plugging up the valve that allows that to move out of the body. Despite pressure from the outside world, we have to work really hard to continue to make crying a clear option for our boys. They need a safe space. There may be other spaces where it isn’t ok to cry, but make sure they know it’s ok to cry with you.
Our kids see that crying and feelings aren’t always accepted by others. We can use the opportunities that come up in the real world to strengthen the culture we’re building in our own homes. Instead of hoping it works out for the best, encourage parents to dig in there. When you see that someone isn’t feeling safe to cry or express feelings, mention that it’s “such a bummer that they come from a place in their lives where that’s not safe for them. What a tragedy that they don’t have a safe space to cry in their world. It is ok. There are places in the world where they have incorrect information about that.”
We’re in a time of cultural change and we can fill our kids in on the details, so they don’t see us or our version of reality as a satellite of weirdness. We’re on the leading edge of a huge cultural shift and by the time our kids are having kids, it will be a very different emotional terrain. It can be really helpful to name the differences in what we see in the outside world vs. how we handle things in our own homes.
Feelings are good!