Experience the Full Range of Emotions
We want our children to live life to the fullest. To do so, they must be comfortable experiencing their feelings. We hope that their emotions will primarily include joy, excitement, and contentment. But to experience those heartening emotions to the fullest, they have to be open to the full range of feelings, including sadness and frustration.
We hope our children will be compassionate, empathetic, and caring, so they will commit to making the world a better place. The kind of people who are blessed with this depth of feeling, however, are also more likely to bear witness to pain. They will notice what others walk past. And noticing has its downside.
If we try to shield our children from pain or sadness, we run the risk of diminishing their emotional depths. The truth is that even if we wanted to shield them, we couldn’t. Life will bring its share of pain. That means the best we can do is prepare them to manage emotions effectively.
A bit of pain builds resolve and compassion, just as manageable stress can be energizing. The main concern for our children is that too much stress will overwhelm them or lead them to shutting down.
The Risk of Containing Emotions
What is shutting down? How is it that deeply caring people grow numb?
When stressful emotions rise above manageable levels, it’s normal to set them aside. We may try and “contain” feelings, in hopes that on some level either they’ll disappear or we will process them later. The problem is that too often we only add to that “container,” rather than dealing with what we put in it in the first place. Ultimately, the walls of that container need to thicken to keep all that we feel inside. The walls of the container become so strong they are nearly impenetrable.
Putting away emotions into a safe container (sometimes!) is what allows us to function at our highest levels. When we contain our feelings, with the intention of dealing with them later – the container remains temporary. While we cannot – and sometimes should not – fully experience our emotions in the moment, we must make time to do so at some other point. Otherwise, they escape in odd and inappropriate ways: breaking a vase leads to a breakdown or getting cut off in traffic results in an explosion of angry words.
We need a way to contain emotions. But instead of an impenetrable container, let’s create a flexible, Tupperware container. One with multiple sections, kind of like a bento box. One in which we can see the contents. So we know there is more inside to digest as well as more room for additional feelings.
Then, we are able to name each experience and create a space just for it. Naming brings clarity and a semblance of control. Emotions feel less chaotic. Each experience and associated feelings stays in storage, neatly placed away until we are ready to pull it out. Much as we would remove only one portion from our container at a time.
Processing emotions is not as simple as naming them. We need tools and strategies to handle each emotion confidently. While we can process our thoughts, feelings, and experiences on our own, it is often better to do it with loved ones or trusted friends. There is no coping strategy as effective as the power of human connection.
We need to learn to express emotions on a regular basis so that stress does not build up inside. Most importantly, we know what is inside and don’t fear it. We know that we can release those thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a controlled, intentional, way. The first step was in naming emotions, giving us control as we work on only one issue at a time. This thoughtful, organized approach lessens our fear of getting in touch with emotions. We set the pace and manage the issue we choose to deal with.
We must help our tweens and teens learn how to express their emotions in healthy ways. So they will not routinely withhold them, and risk losing the ability to feel. We need to help them create flexible containers to store their feelings and then equip them with strategies to name, process, and release each emotion when they are ready.
Strategies that Allow Emotional Expression
We want young people to be able to express their experiences and associated emotions. They can do so by completing this sentence, “I _________ it out!” Strategies that can fill in this blank include, among others:
Each of these strategies help us release thoughts and feelings. Not all strategies match the personality or needs of all people. Some people are more creative than others. Some people gain energy from other people. And others connect best with people after they’ve had a chance to reflect on their own. The key is that we find a comfortable way to express feelings at a time of our choosing.
Writing offers a variety of opportunities for expression. When we write stories we tap into our creative energies. When we journal we create a safe space to express our feelings. Journaling allows us to let go of emotions while clarifying and controlling them at the same time. We’re able to worry less by writing more. Reading old entries may also help us be more reflective, and to gain greater meaning from events that have shaped our lives. Some teens don’t like to keep a journal for fear that someone else will find it. Let them know it’s okay to write out feelings and then delete them from the computer or rip up the paper. It still allows them to organize and release their thoughts and feelings.
Being heard is a gift. It’s validating when we share our thoughts and feelings with someone who cares. There really is nothing as protective as human connection. And our connections deepen when we share. Encourage your tweens and teens to share with someone worthy of their trust.
Being connected to something larger, reminds us that we are never alone. Prayer can be something we do in private settings or with others. It can serve as a reminder of our meaning and purpose in life.
With a sense of humor you can get through almost anything. When we laugh, we earn a “reset.” We can start anew after uncontrollable laughter.
Some emotions are too intense for words. There are tears of joy, tears of pain, and tears of grief, sometimes accompanied with sobbing. The deep release that comes with sobbing may also offer a “reset.” We must never make young people feel as if tears are a sign of weakness, because it can take away a deeply ingrained biologic release. Too many of our children have learned that giving up their tears was a sign of growing up. And too many boys have been taught that crying is not what men do, that it is a sign of weakness. We MUST reverse these messages and be there to support our teens if and when they cry. Social support can make the difference between feeling better or worse after crying.
When we create, we express something from deep within. Sometimes we create something simply to be enjoyed. Other times, our creations represent something of clear or hidden meaning. Some people’s brilliance is in their words. Others express themselves with their hands (artists, sculptors), their voice (singers, rappers, spoken word poets), their breath and agility (musicians), or their movement (dancers). Encourage your tweens and teens to find creative outlets. Their expressions bring richness to our world and can help them manage their own stress.
Sometimes emotions run so deep that there are no words to express what we’re feeling. At times, we reach within for something more basic and raw. Screaming can offer a release from the depths of our emotions. Let your teens know it’s ok to scream in the shower, into a pillow or into the “void.” Sometimes it helps release pent up feelings, allowing them to channel some of their energy.
Finding What Works
The absence of a strategy here does not mean it doesn’t work. If it works for your teen, or for you, it works! The key is to find ways to express emotions on a regular basis so that stress does not build up inside.
Mindfulness is in a category of its own. The goal of mindfulness is not a “release” per se. It is instead a strategy to become comfortable with yourself, inclusive of your emotions, just as you are. It is about becoming so attuned to the present through the power of your own calming breath, that you are not thinking of the past or future. Check out The Mindful Teen: Powerful Skills to Help You Handle Stress One Moment at a Time, by Dr. Dzung Vo. It’s a great “how-to” guide for your teen. There are also many helpful videos online.
Care for Yourself
There is no better way to teach any of these strategies than to live them yourself. Self-care is a strategic act of effective parenting. And it’s good for your well-being and ability to manage stress. There are few things that reduce your children’s stress more effectively than knowing you are okay. Really.