Helping Our Children Express Their Feelings
The author, a minister of the United Church of God, has served ten congregations in four regions of the United States over 30 years. He coordinates seven summer camps for the United Youth Camps program and is currently completing graduate work on a master's degree in counseling. He and his family lived in Jonesboro, Arkansas, for eight years.
E RECOILED WITH DISMAY the week of March 21, 1998 as we heard the disconcerting news. Another school shooting had taken place, this time in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
As the first photos appeared on television, I was stunned. They were all children, victims and killers alike. They looked just like the boys and girls who play in our neighborhood after school every day.
In less than a year three similar mass shootings have occurred in which children killed children at school. These incredible acts of violence did not happen in major metropolitan ghettos where children are routinely denied the necessities of physical and emotional health. They occurred in three small towns where religion, family values and community support are prized. These communities represent the mainstream of American culture.
As the Jonesboro story unfolded on the news, the initial responses, from shocked newscasters and interviewees alike, echoed a common theme: "What is happening in America? Why do children kill children in hometown U.S.A.?" These violent acts imply a serious flaw in the American concept of family. It would appear that even in Middle America our children are not getting what they need for emotional well-being.
What is it about our way of life that creates these terrible events? What are we missing? There are many cultures in which teen crime of any sort is almost nonexistent. Most of these cultures are not affluent. The missing element apparently has little to do with material provision.
One of the first responses from Jonesboro was a call by politicians for more security in schools. We all want our children to be safe at school. We need security. Is increased security a solution that goes to the source of the problem? Or is it a "Band-Aid solution" that deals only with the effect? To find a source solution, we need to understand what we, as a culture, are missing in our families.
The next response came from a state official in Arkansas who said, "Parents should do a better job of raising their kids." This response struck a chord with many. The statement appears to get closer to the problem. We try hard. We love our children. But we are obviously missing something vital in our child-rearing efforts.
My family and I used to live in Jonesboro. Our children, now adults, went to excellent schools there. After school they played with decent children who are now the peers of the victims' and the killers' parents. The community was a wonderful place to raise children. From our experience there, the people of Jonesboro faithfully represent parent-child relationships in hometown America. The terrible occurrence there does not bode well for the state of parent-child relationships in America.
The TV reporters asked psychologists to explain why a child would kill another child. Counselors on the scene explained that the killers in these three mass shootings were angry children who acted out their anger by perpetrating these destructive acts. Left alone, children are much more prone to act out their negative feelings because they rely more on their emotions for guidance and less on their cognitive or thinking skills.
The key phrase here is "left alone." To weather the storms of childhood, children need the skilled support and involvement of adults: not only parents, but also grandparents, teachers, ministers, coaches, mentors and other involved adults in their schools, churches and communities.
In addition, care givers must understand the emotional needs of children. First, they must understand that children need help to work through their feelings. Second, they need to know how to open channels of communication, so children will be able to talk.
There is evidence to demonstrate that in American culture, adults do not understand that children and teens need support in dealing with their emotions. We tend to think they will come for help if they have problems ¾ a most unrealistic expectation.
Nor do American adults know how to open channels of communication with children. In our culture, we are experiencing the deepest separation between children and adults that has ever existed in human history. If we knew how to communicate with our children, that separation would not exist.
Let's look at these two issues more closely. First let's consider a child's need for help in expressing feelings.
Children Are Different
WHEN HUMANS ARE BORN, they have little cognitive development. They can't talk yet. Their ability to reason is limited. Babies, however, are keenly attuned to emotions. I once dealt with a teen mother who had a baby that put on no weight after birth. A month later she was still birth weight. She would take a bottle from the nurses in the hospital; but she would not take any nourishment from her mother. This syndrome is called "failure to thrive." It mostly occurs as a result of parental deprivation. When a baby is not lovingly attended by parents, the baby may understand without words that he or she is not loved. Infants rely much on emotional input, and are keenly aware of it.
In the transition from infancy to adulthood, humans gradually develop the ability to think, to talk, to reason. Part of the process of human maturation is a shift from complete dependence on emotional input to the inclusion of thought as well as feeling. When humans are fully mature, they make decisions based on their emotions and their thinking.
Because of this developmental process, adults who want to communicate love and care to children would do well to remember the following points:
- Feelings carry more weight than reason. When I was 4 years old, our family went to Garden of the Gods in Colorado. There were some native American dancers in full costume. I was terrified. No amount of talking or reasoning on the part of my parents would convince me not to be afraid. My emotion was more real than their verbal assurances.
It is interesting to consider that most auto insurance companies decrease rates for young adults at age 25. At this point most young adults are making decisions based more on cognition than on emotional input. We call it maturity. This is to some degree a by-product of culture. Western culture stresses reason much more than some other cultures.
- Children often do not know how to put their feelings into words. Feeling is easier than talking for children. They have not yet developed the verbal and reasoning skills that adults have. For example, if a child feels angry, jealous or afraid, he or she often cannot explain these feelings in words. As children move through teenage, they acquire verbal and reasoning capability, but they still tend to rely on their emotions over their newly acquired cognitive capabilities.
- Children need help to express their feelings. Because children are still learning to express feelings in words, it is difficult for them to do so. The more negative the emotion, the more courage it takes. As adults we often dismiss early fears as childish. We forget that when we were children those same feelings caused us real torment. Even teens, who are rapidly developing cognitive ability, need help and practice to put words to their feelings.
Helping Children Verbalize Emotions
SEVERAL YEARS AGO I received a long distance phone call from a 16 year old, the daughter of good friends. She was upset to the point of tears. True to her age, she was processing her problem emotionally. It seems she was having a crisis with her parents, centered around her boyfriend. I talked to her for no more than 15 minutes on the telephone.
Days later I called her to see how things were going. I also talked to her mother, who informed me that "an amazing transformation" had taken place in their daughter. She seemed to be much less defensive and much more willing to discuss the situation rationally. She was acting a lot more like an adult.
I can't take credit for it. Both the parents and the young lady are high quality people with good principles and deep respect for each other. However, I was consciously trying to accomplish several things as I talked to her.
As my young friend poured out her emotions in words, I tried to feed them back to her in different terms. This helped her enlarge the range of words she used to describe her feelings. It also helped her to use her cognitive abilities to process her feelings, to understand them.
Once the flood of feelings began to subside a bit, we moved quickly to a remarkably adult discussion about what she could do to resolve the situation. She volunteered an admission of disrespectful treatment toward her parents. I asked her to put words on the feelings that came with that behavior. She said she felt ashamed and hated to act that way. Conversely, she also wanted more freedom to spend time with her boyfriend. I asked her to put words on her parents' concerns. She came up with a wonderful analysis of their concerns, admitting that their worry was rooted in love for her.
I asked her if she was willing to give a little to get a little. She told me she knew she couldn't have it all her way, but she didn't want to give up too much, either. "Completely reasonable," I assured her. We then began to develop from her identified list of desires, and the desires of her parents, a plan that she could use to negotiate a more agreeable solution with her father and mother.
This 16 year old was between childhood and adulthood. She had adult language skills, but under duress, as any child will do, she began functioning almost solely on her trusted emotions. She only needed a little adult guidance to trust in and engage her newly acquired cognitive skills. Once engaged, she was able to use her new skills effectively. Our conversation helped her to experience herself as an adult, a feeling so necessary and encouraging to a 16 year old.
Her mother, at one point in our discussion, asked me, "How did you cause her to feel so completely respected and heard in such a short time?" This leads us to the second issue mentioned earlier: open channels of communication with children.
Opening Channels of Communication
THE MOTHER of the Jonesboro child perpetrators was interviewed on television. The reporter told her that counselors said kids who commit such crimes are acting out anger because they have no one to talk to. She responded to the contemporary wisdom by saying that she was home and available for him, but he didn't choose to talk to her. She suggested that perhaps he was embarrassed to talk to her about the problems he was experiencing with girls. She seemed to be as baffled and heart sick as any of the victim's parents. Our hearts go out to her in her grief and bewilderment.
In her comments we can see the problem more clearly. In our culture, as a rule, parents love their children. We try our best to express our love. We remind them constantly they can talk to us if they have problems. We work hard to provide for them. We believe we are physically and emotionally available. We believe we have proven by our actions that we love our children.
Many children, however, experience the parent-child relationship differently. While they may know they are loved, they may also feel isolated and confused about how to deal with the issues of life. Most children in America today experience their life as separated from adult life. They have their own music, their own clothing styles, their own interests and their own activities. When they are troubled by negative emotions, it feels to them like they have no one to talk to, even though Mom and Dad are 15 feet away in the living room. This profound sense of separation, very real to them, makes it nearly impossible for them to talk to adults about their deepest fears, their most frightening feelings, their most embarrassing problems.
How can we help our children open up and talk to us when they are troubled?
Children Relate Differently Than Adults
IT MAY SURPRISE SOME to understand that children experience relationships differently than adults. Consequently, to build a relationship with a child, we must do things differently. Let's look at how children relate to others.
In our earlier discussion of human development, we saw that children rely mainly on emotional input at first, then gradually include reason and thinking as these abilities develop. Those who work with children notice that they have "emotional radar." Children can tell whether adults are sincere or not, whether they care or not. This input is nonverbal. If you ask children how they know someone doesn't care about them, they struggle to put words to it. They didn't gain the insight by words or thinking. Some social scientists say human communication is well over 50% nonverbal. Voice inflection and tone, posture, dress, hairstyles, facial expressions, body movement and gestures all play a part in communicating emotional content. Children unconsciously read and rely on this information to test and form their attachments.
If we want to build a safe and trusting relationship with children we must communicate with them on the emotional, nonverbal level as well as with words. Until we connect with them on this level, they will not feel secure enough to talk to us.
An example may help clarify the process. A man goes on a business trip, leaving his wife and 3-year-old son at home. He calls every night and talks to both of them. He tells them both he loves them. His wife, using her cognitive skills, reasons that her husband cares about her because he takes the time to call her. She hears him tell her that he loves her, and she connects his words with recollections of their mutual feelings of love. After she talks to him she feels loved. The 3 year old, however, will only feel loved when his father comes home, gives him a big hug, pulls his son up on his lap and listens intently while his son tells him all about what happened while daddy was gone. The child relies more on nonverbal cues to detect that he is loved.
What does all this mean related to children? Children like to go out to eat and they like to receive presents just like adults, but these things do not prove to them that they are loved in the same way they might to an adult. Buying children things, taking them to amusement parks, setting up trust funds or annuities for college tuition, etc., might be motivated by parental love, but do not cause children to feel safe enough to examine their problems and feelings.
Going back to my childhood experience with the Indian dancers, I recall that my fear did not begin to subside until my father picked me up in his arms and held me close while he promised to keep me safe. Before long, I was a fearless and happy child. Notice that I did not accept his verbal messages as true until he communicated love and safety to me at the nonverbal level.
Teenagers generally respond this way also, even though they are older. At our summer camps we notice that when the staff attends to them with positive nonverbal communication, they feel safe enough to try things they have never tried before. They seem more respectful of each other and the staff. They talk more freely about difficult topics.
Connecting With Our Children
HOW EXACTLY DO WE CONNECT on an emotional, nonverbal level with children and teens? In our culture adults tend to consider the opinions, feelings and needs of children less important than those of adults. Children, emotionally attuned creatures that they are, read this and correctly infer that they are not respected. No one wants to open up to someone who disrespects them.
In order to connect with children, we have to demonstrate interest, respect and care to them, at the nonverbal emotional level. Until we do this, we can forget about any trusting relationship with them. Children simply cannot relate to adults unless those adults send them caring, interested and respectful signals. When they sense emotionally that we are interested in them, care for them and respect them, it is much easier for them to open up to adults.
How exactly can we send these nonverbal messages of respect and care to our children?
- Eye contact. When an adult listens to a child and makes gentle eye contact, this communicates interest, respect and care, without words, at a meaningful level to the child. If this eye contact is accompanied with a warm facial expression and open posture, so much the better. Eye contact is meaningful to all humans, but relied upon more strongly by children as evidence of interest and respect.
- Touch. The day following the Jonesboro school shooting, some child experts were interviewed on television. While talking about what parents could do to help children open up, ne of them, a noted M.D., said, "I think we have forgotten the power of the hug." Touch is a powerful vehicle to communicate care, love and respect at the nonverbal level. An adult's hugs and other appropriate physical contact send positive messages to children.
- Giving our time. Another way to help children know we respect them is to spend time with them. I know a father who takes each of his three children out to dinner once a month. He sits across a table from them, looks into their eyes and enters into their personal life. He listens to their plans, troubles, successes, experiences. He told me after one such event with his 16 year old daughter, "She's growing up. She has plans. She has purpose." He was amazed and delighted. So was his daughter. She knows her father respects and loves her. She learned it, in part, by his willingness to give some of his time to her.
- Unconditional acceptance. Children feel less powerful than adults. They see adults as the authorities. Adults deal out both blessings and punishment. To come to someone of such power, children need to know that when they come, they will be met with acceptance, no matter what they have done. Children will more easily admit their faults and receive correction if they know that they, apart from their actions, are loved and accepted as human beings. We convey this acceptance by engaging our children when they have done something wrong, rather than venting anger on them, withholding our affection from them or denying them our attention.
Children are wondrous creatures, each possessing unique potential. If they are to fulfill that potential, they need the support and guidance of parents and other adults. Before they will accept our help they must sense, as much as know, that we care about them. We must know how to open a channel of nonverbal communication with them.
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