Talking about feelings

Resting, digesting, connecting. How to talk about feelings with our children

The tensions, and uncertainties about the last term are subsiding for our kids as they get the chance to hunker down at home. For us the pace of life speeds up in a frenzy of Christmas shopping, wrapping, and card writing, before eventually slowing down. We will all, I hope, have some chance in between the minced pies and chipolatas, to rest and digest, and take in the impact of the last few months of living with Covid. It is during these times, when the defenses drop and all the ‘doing’ of life starts to drop away, that we get more of a chance to ‘be’ and process how we feel. For us, since September, we have returned to school, worked hard at home, moved from London to Hereford, moved school, ricocheted between Tier 1 and Tier 2 and back again in Hereford. I have finished my lovely job as a coach in the wonderful Wimbledon High, where I have been proud to work for the last 9 years – the 160 mile commute proving an increasing strain as the weather and the Covid situation worsened. We’ve all had our wrenches and challenges. Both practically and emotionally, it has been a rollercoaster ride.

It is so important that we are able to express, and explore our lived experiences of the stresses and strains of life. And it’s so easy to shut those moments down, or miss the step in the dance and clumsily step on a toe or worse. I often get asked in my parenting talks, how to talk to our kids about their feelings – without sounding like a therapist – or making it obvious you’ve just been to a parenting talk! So this edition will try to address that point.

How often do we ask each other about how we are? How often do we really give our focused attention to the answer, and how often do we really give thoughtful attention to what we say in reply to that question? More often than not, that part of conversation is all veneer. A pretend approach and a well-worn, inauthentic veneer of a response. It’s like dancing the Macarena. We all know the moves, what’s expected, and what’s not. And yet, scratch the surface of what parents REALLY want for their kids (beyond the perfect record card aspiration) is their happiness. For them to feel good about themselves, about their lives, and about other people too. We want to know how they are doing, we want to know that they are alright. And though we don’t often truly attend to it, we do want to know how they are feeling. Their feelings, our feelings, are important signposts – that things are nurturing, or that things need to change. It is horrible to think our beautiful children are unhappy, afraid, stressed, lonely. But those feelings are temporary, they are designed to provoke change…the very word emotion contains that idea of motion. We talk of being ‘moved’ when we talk about experiencing strong feelings. These are signposts, not destinations, IF we learn to express, explore and process them properly. The uh-oh feelings they have are all too easy to push aside – but there is learning and growth in the feelings they – and we – struggle with. It’s hard to have a meaningful connection with others if we don’t talk about how we feel. But – how do we begin? How can we encourage the young people in our lives to open up – to themselves AND to us? Most self-respecting teens would rather poke their eyes out than pick through the complexities of their feelings about what makes them vulnerable in their lives. They’d rather present us with what they think we want to see as a finished product so that we will either leave them alone, buy them what they want, or allow them more freedom. It’s helpful here to think about entry level conversations about feelings. In the same way you can’t do the couch to 5Km in one easy step. Or at all, in my case, you need to make a start by talking about the easier stuff first. And this has a massive value. We are generally teflon for good feelings, velcro for the bad. So dipping in for just a breath or two or three to savour good feelings, actually express them, is a massive help. If something’s funny, why it’s funny. Build appreciation, and skill in expressing appreciation.In the same way we’re often bad at processing the darker end of the scale of our feelings, we’re also not great at processing the good stuff, so that we actually INTERNALISE it. This is the stuff of resilience. Properly absorbing the good, helps give us softer landings when the inevitable painful times hit hard. 

Of course, our kids know us well – and they will sniff out an agenda at 100 paces, that’s why taking a moment or two or three every day to hover over the hyperlink about what’s feeling good, what’s enjoyable. Using teachable moments in front of the TV, bonding moments where seratonin is boosted by laughter and smiles. Oxytocin is upped by a hug or a snuggle on the sofa is such potent practice. Don’t just have the experience – hold it verbally for just a beat or two longer. I’m NOT talking about delivering a lecture deconstructing the merits of what we’ve all just enjoyed. Just to mark it with words, articulate something about it and invite them to do so too. This starts to build a sense of psychological safety. And this helps nurture the soil around the approach to being able to talk about more tricky stuff.

What to avoid, and what to try instead:
Don’t over-react
They don’t need extra emotion layered on top of their own. They come to us to feel safe, soothed, and seen. These are the building blocks of their attachment and their ability to sustain productive connections that are so essential to their mental health and wellbeing. When we over-react, they don’t feel any of those three things. They don’t feel safe because you have just compounded their inner fears that they aren’t good enough, this situation is REALLY REALLY bad. They don’t feel seen because now it’s all about how YOU feel. And guess what? They aren’t now seeing you as a reliable source for being soothed. Maybe that’ll come later after you’ve consumed an heroically proportioned Gin and Tonic.
Solution: Keep your eyes on the prize. What do they need right now? The road to repair whatever has gone wrong will come through being able to think it through. Try to keep your cool. Tune into their feelings. Check in with your own reaction. Ask yourself if you’re OK, Validate their feelings and articulate an initial response to what’s going on. Keep it non-judgmental. ‘Wow, this sounds really hard. ‘Be confident in their ability to handle difficulties. ‘I know you can get through this’ Ask what they might want / need from you. Invite them to tell you more about it. Engage ACTIVE listening skills.
Don’t blame them
Yup. You did tell them so. Probably a thousand times. And they are probably expecting you to tell you so. Self manage like mad here and DO NOT LET THOSE WORDS pass your lips. THE MOST powerful and transformative thing you can do at this point is NOT give them the telling off they expect. IN the majority of cases, their own harsh inner critic is probably riffing like mad about their incompetence, uselessness, idiocy. Blame and shame is not fertile soil for learning and growth. 
Solution: Give them your full attention, and focus on the problem and its repair from a point of love, care and compassion. Show them that they can come to you even when they have messed up. Affirm your belief in them, “You really didn’t want that to happen” or “That makes sense”.
Don’t take their feelings personally or get defensive.
It’s so easy for loving parents to over-identify with our children, their feelings, the scrapes they get into. So often their unhappiness is our shame. So many of the parents I have coached have asked ‘Where did I go wrong?’ Sometimes it is really important to remember there is a difference between my shit and your shit. When we go into defensive mode we tend to shut the conversation down. Even if our kids are angry or upset at us, let them express themselves completely before you offer your point of view. Don’t get upset that they didn’t come sooner to talk to you.
Solution: Listen completely. Reflect back to them what you’ve heard, even if it’s a complaint about you. You want to move them from a place of anger, to a place of dialogue. When they feel heard, it reduces their stress / sass levels and they can start to listen to you. Only then, when their ‘yes’ brain is re-engaged, can they start to integrate your perspective with theirs.  
Don’t shut down the conversation.
Think carefully about what’s going on for YOU if you are at the point where you feel like telling them to go and deal with this in their room. Sometimes yes – we need a time out in order to self-manage. But don’t let this be a routine. Quite often we feel avoidant of what’s going on when the big feelings arise at home, because it stirs something up from our own past experiences. Open your mind to your own similar experiences when you were a child. The shadows of our own ‘nursery’ can cast a long spell. As Dan Siegel’s book Parenting from the Inside Out tells us – we are more able to respond in ways that are empowering rather than infantilising, connecting, rather than shunning, when we accept and address what’s going on inside ourselves. So looking a little longer and reflecting on what’s triggering us to go to avoidance is very helpful, if we don’t want to pass it on to our kids. 
Solution: Take a time out if you need to. Observe your avoidance, observe your trigger. Reflect on what it might mean for you. Come to a point of choice about how you want to show up around this – and circle back to it.
Don’t invalidate their feelings.
There are lots of ways of doing this. Minimising – ‘It’s not that bad.’ ‘You’re such a drama-queen’ ‘Don’t be so sensitive’, or silver-lining. Here we short cut the expression and therefore the ability to explore what’s important, what’s the impact of what’s going on, and we try to skip over it.
Solution: Listen and learn. Let them pour it out. Don’t feel you have to provide solutions. Suspend your judgement and just hold the space for them to get it out. Say short phrases: ‘I hear you.’ ‘OK’. ‘Is there anything else about this that’s bothering you?’. Empathise before starting to ask them ‘What are you learning / taking away from this?’ ‘What do you want to do about it?’
Don’t accuse a child of lying
This is a deal-breaker. A total disconnector that will be very hard to repair. And even if it’s true, you’re going to hit the wall of shame where there’s a lot of red mist, a lot of distraction – and often the punitive dynamic results in an avoidance of real accountability. Nothing shuts down a conversation quicker than if you say to a child that they aren’t telling the truth.
Solution: The answer to wrong thinking isn’t right thinking, it’s more thinking. Lying is also a 2 way street – don’t play a part in that dynamic. Instead be curious. Ask more questions instead of gearing up to the big ‘Hercule Poirot’ moment. Try the open question route: who, what, where, when? ‘Help me understand’ – is so much more inviting and connecting across the troubled waters. People lie to avoid trouble, most often. Both parties – child and parent, pupil and teacher, have the power to make lying more or less likely. Reassure your child remove the concern that you’ll overreact, then you’ll have a deeper conversation.
Don’t always wait for them to come to you.
They are less likely to open up to us if they sense we are being needy, or too attached, or we have an agenda or an expectation of them.
Solution: Initiate conversations. Be curious. Show interest in their life. Seek them out. Ask about how things are going. Ask about the tough stuff. Say “Tell me more”, “What else is going on?”

Wishing you all a peaceful and cosy Christmas – rich in opportunities to rest, digest, and connect. Let’s accept that this Christmas won’t have the variety, or the scale that we might have wished for after a HARD year. But let’s use the advice to ‘keep it small, keep it short’ to use the space to dig a little deeper in the real meaningful connections we have with our close family. With love and gratitude, Emma. P.S. Spots for coaching are opening up in the New Year if you would like to connect and explore what’s going on in your life, work, relationships, parenting. It can be a one-off ‘powerful conversation’ or a set of sessions if you want to make some changes that are going to take more time. See my website for more information or reply to this email. 

Recommended Reading
Dan Siegal – Parenting from the Inside Out Phillipa Perry – The Book you Wish your Parents had read. Bite sized:

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