Emotional perfectionism

And the difficulties growing children and teens have in talking about their feelings

Most of the work that I do, talking to parents, teachers and tweens and teens, is about the development of self awareness and emotional intelligence. And frequently parents feel stuck and helpless because they can see their child is struggling, but can’t or won’t talk about it. How do I get them to talk? Is the cry. And this newsletter is seeking to find some answers. 
Again, the spur for this newsletter was a truly moving email from a parent who was thinking through a moment during half term – which I am sure will resonate with all of us. I was moved to tears – and moved to write and act! 
This parent had a moment – and aren’t we all subject to this right now?! Where she was unable to contain an emotional outburst which came on her overwhelmingly and out of the blue: “The biggest outpouring of tears that came my way yesterday like nothing I have experienced since giving birth and being on that emotional rollercoaster.” This happened in front of her children and left her with a whole range of questions about whether this was a good thing or not.

She reflected on the way in which the change of pace in our lifestyles has perhaps put us more in touch with aspects of the self that we can normally split off from in the hectic routine of our previous lives, we are spending more time in the essence of ‘being’ rather than relentless ‘doing’. We are closer to our nearest and dearest, physically at least! Now that the initial adrenaline-fuelled crisis management period is over post-lockdown, when we have the time to lower our guard, what comes flooding in in our emotional lives?

“Us parents and teachers believe in the fundamental outlook that we must cling to this unspoken strength in front of our nearest and dearest and our pupils. Have we got this so wrong? Is there an incredible lesson in empowering our young to help in lifting those up who they normally look to for strength? Does it teach them that the cracks in the veneer are normal? Does it bond the generations? Does it teach them that as adults it will be ok to be vulnerable? 
I just wonder if we really know how amazing our children are if we don’t truly let them in under the cracks, and how prepared they will really be for adulthood if they always see us being strong, being the PA, being the family manager.
It was just on my mind today when I woke up- had the experience brought to the feet of my children a damaging insight or a human touch? My hunch was the latter.”
In the news right now, there have been so many points of emotion and overwhelm. In the bigger picture, apart from the daily life-and-death dilemmas posed with the release of lockdown – we’ve also had the outrage and the tragedy of the murder of George Floyd and the good, bad, and ugly protests emerging from that as well as reactions to the protests. With all the uncertainty, change, and threat to health & lives competing with threats to livelihoods, we are like powder kegs, ready to blow – both individually and collectively. We are parenting and teaching in a world that can feel dark and unsafe. 
Closer to home, we are battling with the extended period of restriction affecting family life, young children’s memories of engaged grandparents fading, the inability to check-in on elderly relatives. The realisation that over the summer holiday we may well not be free to catch up with longed-for family members. The knowledge that any change of scene and any contact will increase risk. The ominous backdrop of a second wave of infection hovering spectrally over us all. So is it any wonder that emotions, if we allow them in, if we don’t allow them in, can force themselves over us like a tsunami wave.
So what does it mean when we are overwhelmed and our children see that we too are subject to grief, sadness, worry, overwhelm? Without doubt, these experiences will be highly resonant. Our child’s response may be varied and unpredictable. Quite often, we find previously unseen resources of strength: empathy, love, calm, and connection. This can be surprising – it can be a connecting and growing experience – a recognition of each other’s humanity. Sometimes for a teenager to see that Mum or Dad are not just their ‘office’ – it can mark a transition to a more grown-up insight into a parent having more dimensions, to see that there are emotional consequences to actions, not only disciplinary ones.

Equally it can be disconcerting for a child to see their parent fall apart. The child’s feelings of helplessness and overwhelm compounded by the sense of their parent’s vulnerability. And if it happens too often, it can create a damaging narrative that the parent is too fragile to be a consistent, calm, protective presence. That the parent needs to be protected from further worry. This can mean that the child becomes inappropriately ‘father to the man’. Too much of this and the attachment between child and parent will be damaged and may become insecure, potentially avoidant. 
I will never forget the moment I phoned the hospital on the 3rd January 2018, the morning after Casualties across the UK went into meltdown, expecting to get an update on my father’s shortness of breath, to be told that he had just died. Our daughter was in the room, making a collage. And I cried out, sank to the floor, and dissolved into tears in complete shock. I remember her putting her bewildered little arms around me, as I explained what had happened and we comforted each other. An hour later my better half had come home from work, and I was racing up the motorway to look after my mother. Trying not to crash the car, and worrying about the emotional wreckage of it all.
And we will all have laser-etched memories of our own moments of vulnerability, overwhelm, and helplessness. Some all too recent. 
This all takes me back to Tronick’s famous ‘Still Face Experiment’ – where a baby of around a year old, and their primary carer (in the video – the mother), settle in to a room together to be observed. The baby is in a high chair and interacting with Mum. The mother is instructed to turn her face away, and then, when she turns her face back, she is to keep her face still, expressionless, and unresponsive for two minutes. (NB not distressed – just ‘still’)

During that time, very quickly the baby falls apart. The first response is to try to get Mum to respond – to resume the ‘dance’ of communication, copying, mirroring and pointing, giving an experimental shriek to try to re-engage. When that doesn’t work, the baby turns away physically in the high chair as though she can’t bear it. Then the baby cries and shows extreme physical and emotional distress – losing control of posture. It’s hard to watch, rather fascinating – and never fails to produce strong reactions in training sessions with teachers or parents. 
Painful as it is to watch the impact of non-responsiveness, what is important about the experiment, is the way in which the baby RECOVERS. Within seconds after the 2 minute experiment is over, and the mother tunes back into her baby, using ‘motherese’ – speaking in a singsong tone and saying ‘It’s ok, Becky. I’m here, and what are you doing? Oh yes. My big girl.’ Literally, by the time she gets to say ‘Becky’, the baby is calmed. In seconds. 
Tronick tells us – from his research into the responsiveness of infants to their social surroundings – that this reaction is absolutely typical in babies who have a secure attachment with their parents. This means, that the infant has had sufficient experience (around 70%) of feeling Prof Dan Siegel’s 4 S-es: Safe, Seen, Soothed, and where we’ve got consistency. Secure – then recovery from ruptures, interruptions to connection is rapid. There is resiliency. 
Where attachment is insecure, then recovery is more difficult, fragile, and problematic. The child would have fewer strategies, may be avoidant, or disorganised in the face of the change in the parent.
So when our children see us fall apart, there is not likely to be lasting damage, provided the attachment background is good enough. What is very important is that AFTER the event, we are able to circle back to what just happened and be able to talk it though with our kids. To show that we can be vulnerable – and we can recover. to check in with them and show that we can process what happened, and return to it thoughtfully. We can provide meaning and context to the overwhelm. We can also talk with them about how they showed up, praise the empathy they showed, or help them with any feelings of helplessness, self-blame, or shame. 
There is no reason why vulnerability in a parent or a significant adult in our children’s lives should be damaging. In many ways it is a huge moment for growth – for seeing that big and difficult feelings are part of the human experience. That they are not alone – and that we can be a resource to each other. In modelling this, we teach courage, authenticity, and that hallmark of all important relationships – intimacy. In showing vulnerability, and returning to process it together with our kids, we take the lead on all the important relational values and model some powerful messages: “Strong back, soft front, wild heart.” Brene Brown – Dare to Lead.

Brene Brown expands on this in ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, and also in her research on belonging.’The Gifts of Imperfection’ is another of her works I would highly recommend.
“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
“Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.”
You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging”
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”
“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance”
When we DON’T ever show our vulnerabilities to our children, we clip the emotional range of our relationship. We leave them without that modelling of the work we do as fellow humans trapped in the struggles that are part of the joys and pains of life. you cannot clip or disallow the emotional range at one end of the spectrum without muting or dulling the opposite. When we close ourselves off to the expression of extreme sadness and pain, we also shut down our capacity for expression of the upper reaches of joy. 
When we are perfectionists when it comes to our own emotional lives, we show the veneer of a ‘finished product’. Beneath the calm exterior our internal struggles cause wear and tear. We give a powerful unconscious message that it is wrong to need help or be vulnerable. We project control as a hallmark of success, in a world where…as we are learning the hard way, control is an illusion. 
We risk underestimating and infantilising – especially as our children grow into their teens and embark on the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence. Our daughter burst into tears during an SRE lesson on puberty, with relief, that the strange and powerful feelings she has been having during lockdown are NORMAL.
Emotional perfectionism and control in adults means further mins-steps in the relational inter-relational dance. When teens don’t see a wider range of the emotional consequences of their rejecting behaviour, they only see an authority figure to be knocked down, a power game to be played.

So how do we get our kids to have a healthy sense of self? How can we get them to be more open about their feelings?

  1. We talk about our own feelings. We savour and dig in to describing and celebrating the good. It has to be a two way street.
  2. We recognise that hoping our kids to open up about difficult feelings and trust us with them needs to come from a place of safety to talk about emotions of all kinds. We need to new active in nurturing the soil around that sense of safety.
  3. We champion the notion that ALL feelings are good. There are no bad feelings. They are all important, they are all there for a reason.
  4. The range of vocabulary they have around emotional states matters – the more accurately they are able to name their emotional state, the more nuanced they are able to be in responding to it.
  5. The essence of emotional intelligence is acknowledgement and acceptance of those feelings as SIGNPOSTS, not destinations. What are we learning from these feelings, what can we do to retain them or to dial them down?
  6. Talking about difficult feelings is advanced level trust stuff. We can’t expect our kids to do that – especially our teens whose job it is to develop a private life and experience the rollercoaster for themselves first – so we need to be talking about the easy emotions, and all the emotions on the spectrum in between the good to the bad, and the ugly. 
  7. The media, social media, films, give us plenty of teachable emotional moments to open up discussion of these emotional dimensions of life and model a curious, accepting, non-judgmental approach to exploring the extremes of the human experience. 
  8. Remember we don’t have to have all the answers for our kids to feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure. We can listen to their thoughts, feelings, and reactions and explore their value and meaning collaboratively. 
  9. A clarifier. I am not talking about navel-gazing – endlessly discussing our emotions, seeking out and revelling in misery ruminatively. I am advocating that when we recognise, understand and name our emotions effectively, we are a long way towards coming to a point of choice about how well they are serving us and employing the skills that derive from our self-knowledge and self-awareness, that can help us calm or still our mind, and divert our stream of consciousness from ever darkening thoughts. 
  10. We hold on to the vision that “Permission to feel strengthens. It’s not always easy to face the truth about who we are and to reckon with our own and our children’s emotional lives. But it’s is a whole lot better than the alternative: denial, overreacting, and so on. You teach your children to express their emotions by skilfully expressing yours.” Prof Marc Brackett – Permission to Feel.

We need to remember that boys and girls often receive different messages about emotions from parents. And this can be compounded when children learn from each other collectively at school without schools mindfully challenging gender biases. Nancy Eisenburg, Professor of Developmental Psychology at Arizona State university warns of disparities emerging from Year 2 onwards. And these gender differences increase with age. Brackett paraphrases her findings in Permission to Feel – Emotions at Home.
-Mothers speak more to daughters about feelings and display a wider range of feelings to daughters than sons
-Fathers discourage boys from expressing emotional vulnerability and use tougher language with sons than with daughters. 
-When parents tell stories to preschoolers, they use more emotion words with daughters than with sons
-Mothers smile more and are more expressive to infant and toddler girls than boys and talk more about sadness with daughters and more about anger with sons.
I’ll close with the paragraph ending Prof Marc Brackett’s chapter on emotions at home:
‘When our children don’t have the permission to feel- they still will. But those feelings will go on in the dark, and the pathways between those feelings and their visible manifestations and behaviours will become almost totally obscure. Not only will our children suffer – we’ll also have no idea why. However, when we support our children to be their full, feeling selves, we’ll see how deeply and enduringly they can flourish. And it starts with us as their role models.’
So with the passing of the initial threat of the first wave, the crisis-management of the lock-down, the vigilance about home-schooling, home-working, and round the clock relentless parenting, we can also anticipate that in the more relaxed routines of summer, and the challenges that lie ahead for teachers, parents, and children alike – different parts of our emotional iceberg will come to the surface. And there we have a choice. To tune in, check in with ourselves, process those feelings, and take the opportunity to learn and grow. Please do pass on to anyone you feel would benefit. Sign up is via the home page of my website. I will have coaching spots opening up over the summer holidays for anyone who wants to make some meaningful changes around how they are showing up in the emotional aspects of their family or working lives. As always. With love and gratitude, Emma.

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