Blog Posts
On naming (and not shaming) feelings 11 March 2018

Remember when your child was a tantrum throwing toddler and you would have no choice but to helplessly watch their storm of rage, frustration and upset run its painful course?

Do you ever wonder, now that your child has grown, where all those emotions went?

Have you ever asked your child what is wrong, only to be told ‘Nothing’ (when you know there is something) or ‘I’m just tired’ (when you know there is more to it)?
As we grow up, we learn to control our emotions. We no longer fling ourselves to the floor in front of the supermarket checkout because we have been denied chocolate (well, only on a very bad day…) we are able to pretend we quite like the awful birthday present our Aunt has given us, we manage to smile and congratulate the person who has just beaten us in a competition.
All of this is necessary for us to function considerately and move through our world in a socially acceptable way. We are pleased and relieved when our children manage this and, quite rightly, proud of the self control they begin to achieve.
The danger is, that sometimes, in the process of managing our feelings, we suppress them to the extent that we no longer know what they really are.

So your daughter just feels she ‘has a bit of a headache’ when her friend goes off with someone else at school.

Or, your son is a complete angel with his new baby sibling, but has started to wet the bed again after a year of being dry.

The trouble with difficult emotions is that suppressing them does not make them go away. They just tend to pop up somewhere else, in disguise, and are often more confusing and hard to deal with because of it.
Our children’s generation are facing an epidemic of mental health problems, including self harming – perhaps the desperate attempt to relieve emotional agony through physical pain. It is not just teenagers going down this terribly sad route – the problem is rocketing amongst the under 12s, with cases being recorded in children as young as 3.
If we are to protect our children from being consumed by such terrible and inexpressible emotional pain, a crucial first step is to raise them acknowledging – and accepting what they are really feeling.
So when they kick the board game over because they are losing, don’t just shout at them for being ‘naughty’.

When they tearfully tell you everything is wrong, avoid saying ‘You are probably just tired’.

When they show signs of jealously towards a younger sibling, avoid rebuking them with ‘That’s not very nice!’

Instead, try treating such incidents as opportunities to discuss, and name, feelings. Have a policy of complete acceptance of any feeling whatsoever. Anger, rage, jealousy – all should be accepted, even welcomed, without judgement. Ask your child to try to describe how it feels in their body. Is it making their heart pound? Do they feel sick in their stomach? If you can, share with your child times when you have felt the same thing.
The simple act of naming, and accepting, an emotion can be a huge release valve. It can also turn an uncontrollable sensation of feeling ‘bad’ into something more manageable.
The next step is to make clear that whilst all emotions are welcomed and acceptable, we have to learn the proper ways to express them. So, kicking your brother is not ok. But telling him ‘I am so angry with you!’ and going off to use a punch bag for a while, is.
Throwing the ball over the fence because you were losing at football is not ok. But taking time out to go off and yell/cry by yourself or telling a parent how furious it has made you feel, is.
And feeling like the world will end because your teacher shouted at you, or your friend ignored you at lunchtime is not ‘silly’. You are not simply feeling that way because you are over tired. The feelings are powerful and upsetting and need to be expressed, perhaps by writing a letter (that may never be sent) drawing a picture, or role playing a conversation.
For parents, this will require large amounts of patience and tolerance. It can be hard work,
but it is worth it.

We inoculate our children against measles and mumps, but feel helpless in the face of protecting them against mental ill health. Perhaps here is a small and simple way of starting. Click here to see a short film on the subject.