"Children show respect for parents by obeying them. Parents show respect for children by expecting them to obey. "

Feelings: To Express or Not to Express?

Feelings are a wild card. On the one hand, the ability to experience deep emotion is one of the things that defines us as human. On the other, feelings can be and often are destructive to relationships and even to self. Like thoughts and behavior, feelings begin in chaos (check out the toddler), and like thoughts and behavior, feelings require firm discipline lest they become ever more chaotic.

In the 1960s, the profession of psychology – my profession – began to focus on and obsess about feelings, especially children’s feelings. In graduate school, I learned that children raised in the 1950s and before (me!) had not been allowed to express their feelings freely. Their “bottled-up” feelings, starved of ventilation, rotted and became putrid, causing all manner of problems, most notably low self-esteem. Through various bogus therapies (e.g. hitting their parents with foam rubber bats as encouraging therapists looked on and asked the parents how they felt about being hit by their child), children were supposedly assisted toward “getting in touch with” and liberating their long-repressed emotions, thus cleansing their psyches of accumulated flotsam. (It is true, by the way, that we baby boomers were not allowed to express our feelings freely. For that, we are forever indebted to the common sense of our elders.)

America is now forty years into this movement, enough time to have figured out that not one speck of good has come of it. Ah, but the mainstream mental health community has yet to figure this out. Its true believers continue to encourage children to talk about their feelings. The answer to “How do you feel about that?” is, apparently, more important than the answer to “What is the right and proper thing to do about that?”

This sort of approach verifies that the child’s emotions are in some way valid. Now, hear me clearly: I am not saying that a child’s emotions are never valid. I’m saying that children are, by nature, soap opera factories. As such, giving a child the impression that every emotion that wells up inside of him is worthy of serious discussion (and that people should adjust their behavior accordingly) is destructive to the child. Just as children must be told that certain behavior is inappropriate, so must they be told that the expression of certain emotions is inappropriate.

These days, it is psychologically incorrect to say to a child, “You’re being silly. There are children in the world who have real problems, like not having enough food. If the worst problem in your life is that someone called you a name, well, sorry to tell you, but I’m not going to give that the time of day. I’ve got much better things to do. Get a grip, kiddo.”

Those approximate my mother’s words to me on occasions when I was making emotional mountains out of molehills. Most people of my generation can testify to similar experiences, for which we are thankful.

Which is the happier, more well-adjusted child: one who expresses his feelings freely when he doesn’t like the way things are or one who has learned to accept that things will not always be as he would wish? The latter, of course!

Parents routinely seek my counsel concerning the former, describing children who become apoplectic at, say, the word “no.” Invariably, the parents in question are attempting to solve the problem by talking to their kids about – you guessed it – their feelings. And, predictably, the more they talk, the worse the problem becomes. When they stop talking and begin to demonstrate calm, purposeful intolerance – in the form of penalizing consequences – for inappropriate emotional outbursts, the outbursts gradually stop and, lo and behold, the happiness quotient of the children in question begins to rise.

Which is a good thing for all concerned, especially the child.

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