“Feelings — Nothing but Feelings”

9 Nov

A line of a familiar song makes it seem like there’s nothing much to dealing with our emotional life. Yet many of us don’t know at any given moment what we are feeling about a situation or even why we may be feeling the way we do.

My last post on parenting hopefully gave you some ideas about how to help your school-age child with his or her feelings. This one will deal with adolescents and young adults.

Adolescents are going through what Erik Erikson called the crisis of “Identity vs. Role Confusion.” Hopefully they have already built up a strong base of confidence in their roles at home, at school, and in sports and other activities. Now as teens they are looking for positive role models and are also comparing themselves with their peers. They are silently and perhaps unconsciously asking themselves, “Who am I? What can I be?” They test out various roles in their friendship relationships, at part-time jobs, and in internships, for example. The emotionally healthy adolescent is very active in extracurricular activities of all kinds, exuding an enormous amount of energy on play practice, chorus, community activities, sports involvement, part-time employment and so on. Parents wonder how they can have all that energy and still be talking on the phone at 10 PM when the school bus arrives at 7 AM!

Besides this crisis of “Identity vs. Role Confusion,” many American adolescents are already grappling with the crisis involved in Erikson’s sixth challenge on the way to maturity: “Intimacy vs. Isolation.” This stage has been roughly designated as the years 20 – 39, although the specific chronology of the eight life stages is really arbitrary.

In this sixth stage, the central question is, “Can I love?” Adolescents, of course, are experimenting with this question in many ways, all too often driven by their budding and blossoming sexual hormones. Most do not yet know that love is more than physical attraction and acting out sexually. No wonder American teenagers are psychologically overwhelmed! They are trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do as a primary vocation, BUT they are also trying to figure out who they are as a young man or woman (without even considering those additional questions of gender identity or sexual preference!)

In his book, It’s Hard to Tell You How I Feel, Richard L. Krebs writes, “As adults who care about children and their feelings, our first order of business then is to pay attention to our own feelings, explore them, and understand them.”

Honesty with yourself about your own feelings, helped by faithfully keeping a journal, is the basis for talking with your teen about his/her feelings. Realize that you can’t force an adolescent to share personal things, including feelings, with you. You must respect your teen’s privacy and use your observational skills to seek out a time when the two of you can have a conversation — or let the young person approach you!

Here are some suggestions for having a heart-felt one-on-one with your teenager:

  1. Help your child realize that no one else is responsible for their feelings. Thus when they tell you that “Ellen made me feel really bad,” give them enough space and time to tell the whole story. Then ask them what specifically they are feeling (not just bad) — “Hurt? Sad? Disappointed? Angry?”, etc. Show them that when they look at the situation from a different angle, they will have a different feeling about it. If you do this regularly with your teen, they will eventually accept responsibility for their own feelings and, more importantly, they will be able to let go of the “dark green” feelings and replace them with more hopeful feelings — feelings which propel them toward positive behaviors.
  2. Help your child learn to use “active imagination” to work through a feeling. Sometimes we may be feeling several things at the same time as a result of a certain experience. So it’s important to acknowledge each of the feelings, give them a place at the “table of our mind and heart” and eventually decide what course of action to take. We need to recognize that both feelings and thoughts are propellants to action. The emotional energy of our feeling world can propel us into action. However the thought process of imagining and working through the consequences of an action is invaluable.
  3. Help your child recognize that the feelings we have about a present situation are resident in our bodies. Our bodies speak louder than our words. Nonverbal communication actually comprises over 90% of what our listener takes away. Our gestures, our grimaces, our laughter and smiles, how we sit, how we stand, how we walk all speak volumes about what we are feeling. And just as we project these data outward to others, we also experience the depth of our own feelings in our bodies. Be aware of how your own feelings are resident in and affecting your body — your musculature, your blood pressure, the tightness of your shoulders — and help your child to recognize this important connection as well.
  4. Help your child to learn when and how to express emotions. Just because we are feeling strongly about something does not mean we should express it vehemently to our friends, our family, much less to our peers or coworkers. Modulating feelings — not keeping them inside and allow them to do damage — but expressing them at the right time to the right person is a sign of emotional intelligence. Keeping a journal to process our feelings is a good step to learning how to be in proper control of and to use effectively the products of our emotional life.

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