Emotional Language

I’ve noticed that my nine year old son often gets negative and frustrated. He regularly comes home from school irritated and saying things like “I hate school, I have no friends, the teacher is unfair” and other broad sweeping generalizations. Some days he tells me he doesn’t want to go to school, and once he told me he’d like to die. He can also get quite angry with his little brother and sister at times too. Sometimes he seems to have so much pent-up emotion that it’s obvious, he really has no idea what to do with it. He’s feeling it, but it’s overwhelming him.

There are two scary things about his moods and mindset when things don’t go the way he expects. The first is that he seems to be very much like me when he’s frustrated. I guess that’s understandable. We inevitably reproduce who we are in our kids – good and bad. When he’s looking like mini-me, you’ve no idea how much that presses the buttons of his mother. The second, is that I think he, being the eldest has been exposed to the conflict in our marriage the most in terms of his awareness of what’s going on. The venom, the arguments, the freeze-outs and stonewalling, the simmering tension, I think, has taken its toll on him.

It’s obvious that he, like me, doesn’t seem to know how to handle his emotions. It’s really only in the last few years, I’ve been coming to grips with my emotions, so I’m trying to pass this on to him, so he doesn’t end up like me.

An emotional language, is the ability to identify and describe your feelings. Women are naturally good at this. Their ability to describe how they’re feeling is much more nuanced than men, because they’ve had more practice for a lot longer. Ask a man how he feels about something, he might say “I feel good about it” or “I don’t feel too good about that”. Hardly specific or useful.

Last night, I helped my son journal his emotions. He’d had a bad day at school. I asked, how did you feel? Angry, irritated, frustrated, sad, annoyed, disappointed? I’m trying to give him an ability to accurately name his emotions. Then I asked what he was thinking when he had those feelings. “It’s not fair, we weren’t told about the changes, I wanted to do something different”. I’m trying to help him see the connection between thoughts and feelings, so that eventually he’ll learn to challenge his thoughts, to try and lift negative emotions. I asked him what were some alternative thoughts and we brainstormed together.

I asked him how long those negative feelings lasted and what changed them. I’m hoping to teach him mindfulness, where he’s aware of his feelings in the moment, and he’s grounded and is aware when negative emotions are fading. I want him to get to know the things that lift his emotions so he can be more strategic about using those things.

Finally I want him to understand that emotions rise and fall over the course of a day, or a week. We have low emotions and high emotions all the time. I helped him to see that his mood was good around tea time and afterward – so he doesn’t globalise and say “the whole day was bad because of what the teacher did this morning”.

Emotions go up and down depending on how we view the events of the day as they unfold. Being grounded and aware of them and being able to name them is the art of mindfulness. Challenging our views and thoughts about certain events can help manage our emotions. Knowing those things that can boost or lift our emotions is important, and you can only discover them by being mindful. Also realizing that emotions come and go and that experiencing a full range of emotions is part of the richness of the human experience keeps what we’re experiencing in the moment in perspective. Our current mood won’t last.

I hope that by teaching him a nuanced emotional language, that it will become part of a toolbox that strengthens his resilience and well being. The alternative to having a good emotional language, is denial and suppression and those tricks failed me miserably. I hope he can avoid the mental illness that I’ve experienced.

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8 Responses

  1. Beautifully put. I teach social skills to children with Autism, and it has taught me so much about the importance of naming our emotions.
    Once they can name the emotions they have usually found their way to some kind of resolution. It is that mindstorm which happens when they are in the grip of strong anger or frustration – I’m still learning how to draw a child out of the red mists towards the cool green of self-expression.
    I have a seven year old son.Just like you, we are alike. Sometimes we just stand with locked eyes, me saying “Are you listening? Are you hearing what I’m saying?” and him saying yes, but he isn’t, he’s caught up in the moment.
    Maybe I’m the one who should be listening….:-D

  2. Hey kateshrewsday, thanks for your comment. It’s great to see others working in the same vein. Hopefully one day the education system will focus just as much on EQ as IQ – after all the most successful people are those who have a high EQ, not high IQ.

    I like those little “face” charts as well, with 20 or more faces with all kinds of expressions that kids can point to and say “I feel like that”. When my son journal’s he chooses an emoticon for the day.

    Interesting you mention that as parents we can get a bit locked into them listening to us and learning from us, but when they’re emotions are raging, it’s not the time to be imparting our wisdom. First port of call is to manage the emotions (emotional regulation) and then learn from it later…..

  3. It’s really great to see what you are doing with your son. I wish I had that much patience with my kids.

  4. hey RS, you would have as much patience as me, if you had the emotional reserves… when you get your energy levels back up, you’ll be fine mate….

  5. interesting post.

  6. What a beautiful blog. So personal in a helpful way. Thank you.

  7. Love what you have to say. Found your blog featured on the WordPress frontpage and I am hooked! I relate to the reasons you started it and what you are trying to learn. Navigating ministry is hard when we feel that we have to put our “all” in but are never taught how to appropriately take care of ourselves, our families and our boundaries. It’s a huge gray area that, more often than not, leads us to burn-out.
    I really appreciate your perspective on marriage and parenting. You obviously love your family passionately and I am challenged by the ways you patiently care for them and lead them.
    Thanks for blogging through this crazy mess we call “life”. It’s good to know I’m not alone.

  8. I enjoyed reading this post, Jack, because I do not have children of my own but have considered their part in the family an unknown factor when it comes to working on the stresses of a marriage. Thank you again for the insight you shared.

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