The first few years of our marriage I didn’t attune well to my wife’s emotions—especially when she got excited about something. As an expressive person, she jumped, laughed, ran around, and screamed with excitement—all while I stood with a simple smile on my face and would say, “That’s great honey.”
That response, or lack thereof, always threw a wet blanket on her excitement. I definitely wasn’t attuned to her emotions.
Then we got a little guy who also has big emotions. Some of this is his personality, no doubt. But most kids from a hard place come to us with big emotions. They are trying to make sense of everything that has happened to them.
Even though I learned a lot about meeting someone in the midst of their emotion from my wife, I still struggle with big emotions—mine or any other person’s. It shows as I interact with my son. My default response is either frustration or shutting down. Unfortunately that communicates to my son that his feelings lack value and maybe even are wrong to have. Both cause shame.
The last thing I want to do is shame my son for having emotion just because I don’t know how to deal with emotion. But I know it happens. I come from the generation of “big boys don’t cry.”
When We Encourage Proper Expression of Emotion
The key is to first accept that emotion is a part of the human experience. It’s how we are created. Our kids that come to us with traumatic histories need to know it’s okay for them to have emotion—even BIG emotion.
The challenge is when our children struggle with how to express their emotions in ways that don’t cause harm to others. But if they are never allowed or encouraged to process these emotions, they will never learn.
When we empower our kids to express their emotions in safe ways, a lot of positive things happen:
Acceptance. Our kids feel accepted especially when they have emotions that they don’t know how to handle. We all know how it feels when an emotion hijacks us. Something out of nowhere triggers an emotional response, and we can’t stop it even if we try. Acceptance gives our children a safe place to emote.
Honor. Our culture seems to have lost its ability to honor. Maybe that stems from a lack of honor in our families. When we allow our kids to be who they are without judgment, we show them respect. That is a form of honor.
Attunement. When I am attuned to my son’s emotions, we are in harmony. I can show that I am attuned to my son’s emotions by full-body listening. My facial expressions support, maybe even mirror, his emotions. If he is jumping up and down excited, I jump up and down with excitement. If he is crying because a friend hurt his feelings, then my voice and face join him in his sadness.
“When a child is upset, logic often won’t work until we have responded to the right brain’s emotional needs. We call this emotional connection ‘attunement,’ which is how we connect deeply with another person and allow them to ‘feel felt.’ When parent and child are tuned in to each other, they experience a sense of joining together.” — Dr. Dan Siegel, The Whole Brain Child
Sometimes this can backfire because my son doesn’t think I am authentic in my emotional response. It comes across as if I am making fun of him. So I try to temper my response while still meeting him within his big emotion. Maybe if my action overshadows his, it takes the focus away from him and puts it on me.
What I am learning is how to help my son understand what emotions are, how to communicate them appropriately, and that they are temporary.
(For more on dealing with big emotions, check out Kenneth’s book Foster and Adoptive Parenting: Authentic Stories that Will Inspire and Encourage Parenting with Connection.)
Kenneth A. Camp
I am a longtime Austinite. Married my beautiful wife over 25 years ago. Adopted our son September 2012. Currently a writer and loving it. Previous jobs and careers include project management, missionary, and pastor. I enjoy sports (both watching and playing), traveling, reading, digging in dirt and hanging with my friends and family. Read more from Kenneth at KennethACamp.com.