Good News for Bad Attitudes

I was visiting with a friend of mine from Finland and I asked her what her biggest adjustment had been since moving to the U.S. She said that in Finland, if someone asks you how you are, you respond with the truth. She noticed that here in the U.S., regardless of how you are actually feeling the expectation is to respond with “Great!”. We spent the rest of the evening discussing how much time and energy we had wasted pretending to be in a good mood.  The theme of this month is agreeability. Agreeability is an important skill for navigating any social interaction. However, I think being agreeable as a default in lieu of being honest is problematic especially when we are modeling emotional health to our children.

When I first started nannying, I often made the mistake of dealing with a tantrum by reasoning with a child or just ignoring it.  If it was a toddler, I would usually just try to distract them. My goal was to end it and I didn’t spend much time considering how I did it. Expressions of anger or fear or sadness in children are really uncomfortable to watch. When someone you care about becomes upset you just want to stop it. While that impulse is a natural, lovely, and kind thing, sometimes we end up shutting down or dismissing a really valuable emotional experience.

Every caregiver can point to a time in the day when they felt like there was a positive, affirming exchange between them and their child; usually around joy, excitement or pride. This was one of best parts of my job. I felt like I could feel her growing. She was testing out these emotions and experimenting with expressing them. Every day we give our children practice and validation with these positive feelings, but we sometimes forget to make space for the negative ones. When the last child I was with would have a tantrum, it was almost unbearable for me. Time would slow down and she would look like she was in so much pain. It drove me crazy. I would panic like someone trying to put out a fire. I sped up.  Eventually the tantrums would pass, but I felt like our interaction was just put on pause while we waited it out. It felt like a missed opportunity.

This experience came up at a recent conference and a colleague of mine directed me to John Gottman’s work on emotional intelligence. Most parents do not need any help when it comes to loving or praising their child, but when things get out of control and there is anger or fear parents can shut down. A lot of what is published about parenting addresses controlling or managing behavior around negative affect (a fancy term for anger, fear or sadness), without giving parents the tools to engage and appreciate the emotions behind the behavior. Parents who are able to tolerate, value and validate negative emotions in their children were labeled “emotional coaches”. Gottman’s work has demonstrated with pretty good consistency that parents who “emotionally coach” tend to have children with higher self-esteem, better peer relationships and the parents themselves report more satisfying coparenting.

It’s not that hard to manage joy, but it is difficult to manage disappointment and anger and fear. I hadn’t given her any tools for dealing with negative affect. When I was watching this little girl, I was who she would look to in order to validate or dismiss her understanding of reality. That’s a really big job, and it was more than a little heartbreaking to realize I had essentially been shutting down when she was experiencing these negative emotions. When she’s upset and I don’t acknowledge that reaction and treat it like it’s real, I’m dismissing her.

I started to try and stay present with her during tantrums or when she would push boundaries. Also, I tried not to hide my negative affect from her anymore. Like most caregivers of toddlers, I obnoxiously narrate the day. I made an effort to include my feelings more, “It’s so disappointing that they we are out of milk!” and she would respond “but we can go get more”.  We had more interactions like this around my feelings and hers. She started to ask me questions about my experiences “are you sad your coffee spilled?” I would say “yes, but we can clean it up,” this was a way to include her to feel invested in the emotional experience of another person. It gave her language around her own feelings which was so helpful for me when she would have a meltdown. Also, I think it gave me one of my favorite memories.  One time while I thought she was napping I had to take a particularly difficult personal phone call. I was crying in the living room, and she had woken up and come in, leaned into my ear and whispered, “you’ll feel better after a nap” and gave me her stuffed bunny. I was there for her first step, her first word, her first night in a big girl bed, potty training and countless other childhood milestones, but this was when I was most proud of her.  

Emotional intelligence needs to be a priority in caregiving and early education. Frankly, I doubt I’ll care what my child’s test scores are if they don’t know how to be a compassionate, empathetic person. Helping our children develop emotional intelligence doesn’t just apply to the positive emotions. It doesn’t mean making our children, or ourselves, more agreeable.  Children experience rage and terror and loss. Just because it’s uncomfortable to watch doesn’t mean we shouldn’t value it – or validate it. For this little girl in particular I hope she doesn’t waste any time trying to her hide or deny her negative emotional experiences.  I don’t want her to feel obliged to be agreeable in order to make someone else comfortable. I don’t want her ever to feel like she’s wrong if she’s sad or frightened or angry.  If we want to raise emotionally healthy children we have to create environments and opportunities where they can experience negative affect in a safe and healthy way.