We are at 10,100 feet. The sky hangs heavy. The distant mountains, like an art lesson in shading, are veiled in deepening obscurations of gray. Lightning roams faraway peaks. Dan and I exchange raised eyebrows, noting without words that a meteorological smackdown is coming our way.
The rain comes gentle at first, tapping an exploratory tune. The kids grow quiet and watchful, concern flickering across their faces. Rain batters our tarp. The storm injects yellow bolts of electricity into the peaks.
These wild, quick-moving mountain storms are a metaphor for our children’s emotions, which swirl in fierce and powerful, loud and humbling. And yet, given care, they evaporate and the light returns.
On our way up to the mountains, Rose was conducting an intensive Q&A session, as some of us do when a little anxious. Rose wanted to know if there would be mosquitoes, how long the drive would be, if I remembered the cookies. She wondered if we were going to have to hike and if we were going to have any fun.
Sometimes, our kids get anxious and sad as we drive away from the familiar luxuries of home into a wild world that may demand a little more resilience, imagination and flexibility.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if children were able to say, “Hey, I’m having a little anxiety here. Can I get some support?” However, this seems to be an emerging skill, for all ages.
Researcher and best-selling author Brené Brown writes in her latest book, Rising Strong, that acknowledging and allowing feelings is a characteristic of the most resilient people. “We cannot selectively numb emotions,” Brown says. “When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
We can help children develop courage to sit with uncomfortable feelings by naming them and offering empathy, which is simply listening without trying to fix, distract or minimize. “Sounds like you’re feeling a bit worried, sweetie,” I might say to Rose without trying to talk her out of her experience.
The comedian Louis CK says he won’t get his kids cellphones because every time they’re sad, they’ll reach for their phone as a distraction instead of dealing with their sadness. About a sorrowful moment, he says, “I cried so much. And it was beautiful. You’re lucky to live sad moments.”
Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has discovered that the more accurately we can pinpoint an emotion, distinguishing between alarm, concern and unease, rather than general “awfulness,” the more likely we are to manage our stress without aggression or addiction. She’s discovered that cancer patients have lower levels of harmful inflammation when they more frequently categorize, label and understand their emotions.
And really, feelings are like the engine light in your car, simply an indicator that something needs our attention. For instance, children’s boredom can be a sign that they’d love an opportunity to contribute, to know their lives have purpose; resentment can indicate a need to be heard; doubt might be a flag pointing to a wish for support and encouragement.
Because children aren’t likely (at first) to cogently announce their emotional state, some compassionate sleuthing may be necessary. A slammed door could be an expression of hurt, fury or helplessness. Focusing on the behavior, rather than what’s behind it, is like trailing the wrong culprit in a crime, i.e., you’ll never solve it.
And just like the weather, emotions pass. If we get comfortable with temporary storms of jealousy, anger, fear and despair, giving each feeling compassion, it’s less likely we’ll act on these emotions, which is where we often cause suffering to others. If we “name it to tame it,” as psychologist Daniel Siegel suggests (by simply naming the emotion), it diffuses the charge, making us less likely to numb ourselves with food, exercise, alcohol and drugs, porn, busyness, withdrawal or blame. It’s no wonder addiction has been called an emotional disease.
And really, this is good news. Sitting through a rollicking storm is uncomfortable, even scary at times. But, if all our efforts toward stopping the weather of our children’s emotions are put toward care for their pain, amazing things happen. New neural pathways are built and strengthened. Trust is built. And the path to sunshine reveals itself.
Reach Rachel Turiel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her blog, 6512 and growing, on raising children, chickens and other messy, rewarding endeavors at 6,512 feet.