Parents in previous generations used to parent with one central theme in mind: obedience. It didn’t matter how you felt, what you thought, or what you wanted. As a child, you simply did what you were told.
As the concepts of emotional development and self-expression in children began to give kids more of a more prominent voice, we should ask, what are we doing with that voice now?
I believe parenting is entering a new generation where emotions are dictating our every move. Some examples you might recognize include:
- Parents making decisions solely to make their child feel a different way, not necessarily what is in the child’s best interest
- Trying to dictate the outside world for a child in order to make him or her “happy” versus helping the child learn to be resilient
- Overreacting to a child’s emotions (as in power struggles)
- Allowing things such as anger or anxiety to be excuses for poor behavior
- Not allowing children to make mistakes, controlling their every move in hopes that they don’t have uncomfortable feelings (helicopter parenting)
These are some of the trends that we are seeing now, and they can be detrimental to a child’s growth. Some children are not learning to put their emotions aside. Their moods are driving their behavior, motivations, and how they treat others. If they don’t “feel” like doing something, they won’t do it. If they are angry, they lash out. Children’s emotions are officially taking over, and I don’t necessarily think that was the goal when the exercise of self-expression for children was first encouraged.
The Repercussions of ‘Emotions-First’ Parenting
Too often, the way seems to be to point the finger at something or someone else, then later wonder why so many children grow up and have difficulties with jobs or relationships. As parents, it’s often easier to point the finger at people such as teachers and accuse them of failing to do their jobs instead of helping your children adjust to an imperfect world. Children whose parents put their emotions first are navigating the world through a happiness lens, and if they are not happy, they are likely not engaging. The process of life becomes looking outward versus inward, and children may become experts at finding other people’s flaws but in the process lose the ability to process their own.
Children are learning that their moods dictate what they should do, and not the other way around. As a result, they may stop doing things when they become harder, and they may avoid social circles and relationships that don’t make them happy all the time. This can also manifest as less motivation to take risks or put themselves out there because of discomfort.
The Road Is Often Paved with Good Intentions
Where do we go from here? Most parents mean well and deeply want their children to be happy, but we as parents need to start making some serious changes. Here are 11 ways we can take our children’s emotions into account while also being the best parents we can be:
- If you are accepting your child’s emotions, this includes all emotions. It does not mean creating an “always make you happy” situation. You have to allow your children to process their emotions when things aren’t going their way, which will help them build resilience.
- Behavior and feelings are different. Your children are allowed to FEEL however they do. This does not give them a pass to BEHAVE however they want. Hold children responsible for their behavior and let them know that they have a choice in how they manage their feelings.
- Promote looking inward, self-regulating, and taking responsibility. Today they may have the worst math teacher on the planet, but someday your children may have the worst boss in the world. In either situation, they must learn to cope.
- If we cannot accept when our children are anything but happy, we are setting them up for a race they will never win.
- Consider using consequences instead of reward systems. Reward systems are unrealistic and confusing to children, and they do not work long-term. Consequences help develop consequential thinking, which is key to self-regulation and thinking beyond the present moment.
- If your child screams at you and you give in, you are teaching him or her that emotions rule. Show your child that behavior rules by remaining calm and shifting your stance only when he or she makes better choices.
- Allow your child to feel emotions. Sit with him or her. Explore instead of fix. Process instead of numb. Trust in your child and he or she will trust in themselves.
- Reframe discomfort as growth. Teach your child essential skills for coping or consider finding a therapist to help him or her learn and utilize coping skills.
- Let your child make mistakes, take risks, and mess up. Natural consequences are sometimes the best consequences.
- Put boundaries on anxiety and anger. Anxiety is at the root of many behavior issues we see, and we too often allow children to behave disastrously because of it. Anxiety is an intense emotional response and it needs boundaries.
- Process your own emotions. If you are unable to feel your own range of emotions, it’s going to be very difficult to be with your child as he or she is feeling his or her own. Practice sitting with your child and remind yourself that it is OK that he or she is feeling.
Parenting is by far the most difficult job, and there is no one way to do it perfectly. You will mess up, you will face all sorts of emotions, and that’s OK. It can become a beautiful model for your children to follow. The best thing we can give ourselves and to our children is the ability to self-reflect, change, and grow. Teach them to look inward instead of outward for happiness, what it means to work hard for something despite discomfort, and how to take risks doing what they love.
It is an incredibly important milestone for civilization as a whole that we are allowing our children to have a say and to express themselves. Now, however, we must do the hard work of teaching them what to do with the emotions they are expressing.
© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Tory L. Eletto, MS, LMFT
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