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As we close out Mental Health Awareness Month, we find ourselves at a critical point in the state of mental health for young and old around the globe. Long before the relentless storm of Covid and most recent social and global unrest we were seeing an alarming rise in rates of depression, anxiety, toxic stress, and suicide for all ages. The past two tumultuous years have impacted every corner of our world and exacerbated the mental health situation exponentially, especially the mental health and the emotional well-being of our children. The implications of the stress, uncertainty, disruption, isolation, trauma, and loss are palpable. resulting in late last year, the AAP, AACAP, and CHA, along with the US Surgeon General, all declaring a national state of emergency on children’s mental health. We are seeing the impact of over two years of disruption, interruption, and prolonged stress on children’s learning, behavior, and social-emotional development. Basic skills from sitting still, listening, taking turns, sharing, and communicating are missing or delayed. Educators and parents alike are seeing behavioral issues such as arguing, frustration, social withdrawal, anxiety, and hyperactivity. What can we do to support children in dealing with all of this disruption and stress? How do we change course, help them to understand, express, and manage all their many emotions, and help them develop the skills they need to learn and navigate their world? It starts with looking at our own ability to do this for ourselves, first.
Recently, a parent asked me an important question — perhaps a question that resonates now more than ever before as we all try to find ways to understand and manage all that we have experienced.
“Dr. Housman, I grew up being told not to show my feelings or express my emotions, that showing our emotions was a sign of “weakness.” Consequently, I bottled all of what I felt inside ‘til I would explode, usually in an unhealthy way. I do not want my children growing up following this pattern, struggling with their many emotions without the ability to express how they are feeling, and not being able to understand that emotions are something everyone has. How can I ensure that history does not repeat itself with my children?”
If we look at where we are right now in terms of a true mental health crisis, we can see the results of sweeping emotions under the proverbial carpet. So many of us were taught, as this parent was, that revealing our emotions to the world was not acceptable behavior. More often than not, we were not shown how to effectively understand, express, or regulate our feelings. We did not observe, learn, or develop the skills and tools that are so important to know how to handle our own emotions and the emotional responses of others. This is especially true when stress skyrockets or a crisis occurs. When confronted with a heightened emotional situation, we were left without a positive path to effectively deal with our emotions, and this pattern perpetuated itself, potentially impacting our mental health, physical health, relationships, and overall well-being.
We all have emotional “habits” taught to us by the adults and experiences we were surrounded by in our earliest years. These became our learned behaviors, our reflexes. If we watched the adults in our world shut down, walk away, explode, or even deny anything resembling an emotion, that is what we learned to do, too. None of these are effective or helpful in managing emotions, stress, resolving conflicts, or changing a situation.
Yes, history can have a way of repeating itself. When we have been “taught” that our emotions are a weakness or something to be ashamed of, we can unknowingly carry this belief forward. We can, however, change not only the patterns we learned but also the passing of those patterns on to our children. But, where to start?
First, allow yourself to acknowledge that there is a pattern, a history. This requires self-reflection. Self-reflection is a process of self-examination of one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. Being able to let yourself “look” at your emotions and ask yourself important questions like, “What am I feeling?” “What made me feel this way?” “What went well?” What could I have done differently?” “How could I have made this situation more positive?” and “How can I do better next time?” is a step forward toward becoming comfortable with, understanding, and learning to manage our emotions. When we practice self-reflection, we can begin to think more clearly, focus, address challenges, and develop the skills to plan to do things more effectively next time. Through this process, we can look at how we may or may not be ignoring or avoiding not only our emotions but the emotions of our children. We can help our children learn how to embrace and discuss their feelings openly, without the heavy heart and burdensome feeling that emotions are something to be hidden, denied, ashamed of, or devalued.
Learning how to best respond to the unique developmental needs and BIG emotions of our young children requires the skills of emotional intelligence — how we deal with and manage our own emotions, and how we respond with empathy to those of others. Helping children to understand and manage their emotions, not only in the moment but throughout their lives, starts with their most significant relationships. Becoming aware of our own emotions, being sensitive to the emotions and experiences of others, and having the ability to manage the intensity of our emotions can help us to then teach these skills to our children. Understanding your own emotionality allows you to become more self-aware and better able to model, respond, guide, and teach your child the essential toolbox of emotional intelligence for life: how to recognize, understand, express, and regulate their own emotions and become sensitive and empathic to the emotions of others. You are breaking old patterns by giving permission to yourself and to your children, and by demonstrating that all emotions are okay, normal, natural, and necessary! Everyone has emotions — it is what we do with all those emotions that matters most.
Young children are emotional detectives. They are always observing and learning from these observations-what we do, how we react, and how we respond. A supportive and meaningful relationship is one that is responsive and sensitive to children’s emotions and needs and helps them to feel understood. When I think back to when I was a child, I remember there being no better feeling than when I knew I was heard, understood, and known.
Fostering these essential skills in our children requires us to use respectful language and become active listeners. We need to demonstrate emotional awareness, compassion, and our desire to facilitate problem-solving by working together with our children to have those big conversations about how they are feeling. We play an instrumental role in helping them to identify and understand the many emotions they experience every day. Helping children deal successfully with their big emotions requires us to:
History can only repeat itself when we are not acknowledging our own history.-reflecting on what it felt like and the painful consequences of avoiding and closing off our important, natural, and necessary emotions. Giving ourselves the permission to feel our feelings and working to develop the skills and tools to deal with and manage our own emotions is one of the greatest gifts we can share and pass on to our children. In doing so, we are creating a new and stronger legacy— one that will help them have a foundation of emotional well-being and set them on the best path forward to succeed on their life’s journey with pride, a strong sense of self, respect for others, and the knowledge that they have the tools they need to become their best self.