This past week has been a tricky one. To give you a bit of an indication of my headspace, I started with a post titled ‘why are most adults such assholes?’ My husband saw my computer open and said in a slightly uneasy way, ‘interested to see where you go with this…’
He was right. Where was I going with this? It was actually a bit of a catalyst to sit with the experiences of the past little while and access that discomfort. What was I so upset about?
There are a lot of really great articles and studies out there about kids and negative emotions. As adults, the language we use with children experiencing big feelings can be really unhelpful. Phrases like ‘stop crying’, ‘why would you get upset about that?’ ‘be a big girl” ‘you are embarrassing me’ invalidate the negative emotions of children and begin a cycle of unhealthy emotional processing.
What I haven’t seen or read about, is how a lot of adults do exactly the same thing for positive emotions. It is a big can of worms. And once I started thinking about it, I couldn’t stop.
Anger, sadness, fear and frustration can look BIG in children allowed to feel naturally. It is such an important part of the process to reach into the corners of those emotions in a safe and supportive environment. This experimentation is part of the intrinsic motivation for children to start to build the skill set that allows them to process those feelings in a healthy way and develop coping mechanisms that are not driven by shame or fear. Like most things, learning strategies to process emotions is trial and error. Is it that radical to think that positive emotions are exactly the same?
Joy and excitement and happiness can look big and messy, too. For me, it is amazing to watch. Seeing my children express their positivity in an unadulterated way, especially with their friends, is such a beautiful thing. It is often LOUD and frenzied and they are moving their bodies and feeling with their whole beings. It radiates.
But this past week, I have noticed something that wasn’t clear to me before now. Our routine has changed and so have the people around us. It is cold outside, and subsequently we have moved inside. We are spending more of our time away from the natural expanses we frequent in the warmer months, and more time at indoor venues with the masses. The kind designed for children. The kind of places where being child-like should be celebrated and welcomed.
And, I have begun to notice something peculiar. I am not sure why I never saw it before. In the same way that adult heads turn towards a child who is crying inconsolably, heads turn towards children jumping and screaming with excitement, laughing loudly or wildly celebrating their joint accomplishments. I see the distaste. I see the looks. It isn’t interest in the source of their joy, it is disapproval. It is children being ‘unruly’, ‘out of control’ ‘overexcited’ ‘too loud’. Or just, HEARD. NOTICEABLE. Because goodness knows the general public appreciate a child who is only seen but nothing more.
The more I hear phrases like ‘calm down’, ‘shhhh’, ‘stop being silly’ ‘be sensible’ directed at other children, I have begun to wonder, surely it isn’t a stretch to think that telling a child experiencing euphoric excitement to ‘calm down’ would have the same effect as telling a child feeling immense sadness to ‘stop crying.’ We are invalidating their experience. We are trying to control and contain it. We are trying to take the peak off the highs as well as the lows. We are trying to teach kids that nothing too big is acceptable. FEEL, but only on a fairly monotonous frequency.
I’m curious, if there is a body of research connecting the burden of suppressing negative emotions and our ability to react in a healthy way to negative feelings, what is the fall out from suppressing positive emotions and our ability to truly feel excitement and joy and happiness as an adult?
Maybe this wasn’t such a big deal in a time where children spent a lot of time unsupervised, experiencing that joy with people who ‘got’ it – other children. But adults are there now. ALL. THE. TIME. Reminding children to keep their even keel. Reminding them that their joy is annoying for everyone else.
When we react in a way that shows a child that what they feel strongly about matters, they receive the message that their feelings are valid and matter. Telling a child that getting upset about the wrong colour plate is over the top, is sending the message that the things that are important to them are unimportant. That their sadness is misplaced. But what about shooshing the loud celebration in the supermarket at the realisation that cherries are back in season? Isn’t this communicating that their happiness is misplaced, too? A bit of reminder to keep their joy in check. Be happy, but only if that happiness makes sense to someone else. Be excited! But not like that…
Childhood is a time where all of these neural pathways are being formed. I don’t want my children to train their minds to accept a watered down version of their emotions. I want them to continue to laugh until they are crying. I want them to celebrate whatever they feel is worth celebrating. I want them to continue sharing their happiness in its pure form. I see it in their friends too. This ability to exist in the moment uninhibited. As adults why wouldn’t we try to preserve this vibrancy? I want to nurture and protect this until they are confident enough within themselves to disregard the people who think they are ‘too much.’ I refuse to adhere to the attitude that a quiet, calm child is a ‘good child.’ To truly feel and express emotions is not shameful. It is human.