Emotions are complex, multi- dimensional, biological and psychological processes that rapidly organize thought and action in the service of goals or “concerns” essential to our physical survival and psychological well-being.
Emotions focus our attention, direct our thought and imagination, evoke memories, and prepare us for action.
Every emotion is evoked by a characteristic appraisal (or appreciation) of events. Interest, for example, is evoked by novelty. Anger is evoked by feeling thwarted or injured.
Every emotion evokes a unique subjective experience (our “ feelings ” ), a characteristic pattern of physiological activity, and typical facial, postural, and vocal expressions.
Every emotion is associated with a characteristic action tendency. Interest motivates exploration. Anger motivates attack. Fear motivates escape. Shame motivates concealment.
Our experience of any emotion includes an appraisal of our coping potential.
In normal development, children construct increasingly complex emotional appraisals and more flexible action tendencies.
Children develop emotion “ scripts ” and beliefs that become the foundation of their personality and character.
Positive emotions promote openness in thought and behavior. Negative emotions narrow thought and action. Positive emotions support exploration, creativity, and learning, and the building of social relationships that become resources in conditions of adversity.
Emotion is also our essential language in talking with children.
“ Interest is the only emotion that can sustain long term constructive or creative endeavors. ” Sylvan Tomkins
As parents, our enthusiastic responsiveness to our children’s interests is the surest way to engage them in some form of meaningful dialogue or interaction, and a first principle of strengthening family relationships.
Children experience feelings of shame when they suffer any social rejection; when they are unable to learn; when they are defeated in competition; when they are bullied, insulted, or taunted; and when they seek acceptance and approval from admired adults but are, instead, subjected to criticism, scorn, neglect, or abuse.
When children tell us that they are anxious, they are often anxious about the possibility of feeling ashamed.
“Shame is the pathogen that causes violence just as specifically as the tubercle bacillus causes tuberculosis, except that in the case of violence, it is an emotion, not a microbe.” James Gilligan
A child ’ s expectation of feeling proud or ashamed decisively influences her choices - those situations she actively seeks and those she avoids. Shame - our emotional response to exclusion and failure - lowers aspirations. Pride - our emotional response to acceptance and success - raises aspirations. The evolutionary psychologist Glenn Weisfeld succinctly explains, “ We anticipate pride and shame at every turn and shape our behavior accordingly. ”
Especially, children want their parents to share in their pride and to be proud of them. Our children ’ s feeling - their inner certainty - that we are proud of them is an essential good feeling, an anchor that sustains them in moments of discouragement, aloneness, and defeat.
Positive Expectations Psychological health, in childhood and throughout life, depends on our ability to hold onto positive emotions and, especially, positive expectations.
Positive expectations keep kids on the right track. Positive expectations for their futures help children and adolescents work hard and make good decisions in the present. Children with positive expectations will also more readily accept their parents ’ discipline, because they will understand the need for it.
Every child, no matter how angry and discouraged, no matter how defiant, secretive, or unmotivated she may seem to be, at the same time wants her parents ’ approval, wants to do well, and wants to be accepted by her peers. The solution to the emotional and behavior problems of childhood begins with this fact.
Principles of Therapeutic Intervention “Positiveness” Repair Proactive Problem Solving
Toward the end of the first year of life, children begin to look to others to share a positive feeling. A toddler will smile, for example, while he is exploring a room, and he looks toward his parent. Parents then instinctively respond to their child’s smile with smiles of their own. Robert Emde, who first studied these interactions, refers to this behavior as “positive affect sharing.”
Teenage mothers rarely respond in this way with their children.
Positive affect sharing is deeply rewarding to both children and parents. But it is not a “ reward ” in the narrow sense of the word. When we return a child ’ s first smiles or reach out our arms to catch her as she takes her first steps, we are not attempting to shape or reinforce our child ’ s behavior. We have, however, strengthened something more important. We have strengthened her inner expectation of a joyful and encouraging response to her own instinctive expressions of enjoyment and pride.
Moments of mutual joy and delight between parents and infants may directly promote brain development in infancy.
Express enthusiastic interest in your child’s interests, even if these are not the interests you would choose.
If we look hard enough, we will find, in every child, some interest and a desire to do well.
When parents respond with animated, enthusiastic interest in their child’s interests, most children soon begin to show more enthusiasm and emotional aliveness - and, often, less stubbornness. These positive interactions seem to operate as a protective factor in children’s emotional lives, to confer some degree of immunity against the effects of emotional distress.
What if he’s only interested in watching television and playing video games? Answer: Watch and play with him Then, find the source of his discouragement and frustration.
The lives of children, of course, are not all about positive emotions. In the daily life of every child, there will be moments of frustration and worry – moments of failure, of exclusion, of ridicule and humiliation. Many of these experiences (especially when kids are bullied or have difficulty learning to read) evoke in children a profound feeling of shame. In every family, there will be moments of anger and misunderstanding.
We now know that the repair of these moments is essential to children’s emotional health. Repair is essential to all of our relationships - our relationship with our children and the health of our marriages.
As parents, we are, unwittingly, too critical of our children.
Persistent criticism breeds resentment and defiance, is destructive of a child’s initiative and self-confidence, and undermines her motivation and sense of purpose. We need to prevent the buildup of these damaging attitudes in the minds of our children.
When children respond poorly to criticism, with defensiveness or withdrawal, parents often say, “He is too sensitive.” Perhaps. But we are all sensitive to criticism. And he may not be overly sensitive; rather, we may have been too critical and not sensitive enough.
Why are parents so often critical of their children?
For every criticism, there is an equal and opposite defiant reaction.
When a critical family atmosphere persists, all therapeutic efforts are likely to fail.
The antidotes to criticism - simple in theory, but at times difficult in practice - are patient listening, recognition and praise for a child’s efforts, and a proactive approach to resolving recurrent problematic situations.
Tell him what is right about what he is saying or doing before you tell him what is wrong.
Often, when parents put aside time to listen and talk with their children, they report immediate improvement in their child’s mood and behavior.
Proactive Problem Solving Step 1: Take a Step Back Don’t React Step 2: Place the Problem Before Your Child Step 3: Enlist Your Child’s Ideas Step 4: Develop a Plan Step 5: Express Appreciation and Praise
Kennneth Barish, Ph.D. Contact: 280 North Central Ave. Hartsdale, NY 10530 914-949-0339 firstname.lastname@example.org www.kennethbarish.com