Feelings come and go

A lesson I am learning alongside my kids

The more I am learning to slow down, notice feelings, and sit with them, the more I realize that feelings come and feelings go. However, in the moment of strong emotion, it feels almost impossible to remember this.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about why it is important to validate our kid’s (and our own) feelings. In the post, Why Telling kids “It’s OK” may do more harm than good, I was inspired by author Susan David who notes that when people feel seen and accepted for that emotion, the emotions immediately starts to dissipate. I’ve been thinking about this all the time.

Both for myself and for my kids, it often seems like the easier play is to brush off the feeling, use distraction, or simply avoid it all together. Why would I help my kids lean into their feeling of disappointment when I could just give one of them another toy to play with? Or solve the problem for them by distracting them a snack?

Strong emotions are teaching opportunities

In the moment, it’s tempting to use one of the above, generally effective, strategies. However, I know that moments of emotion are incredible teaching opportunities. They are not always going to have the option of getting another toy, and I really don’t want that “happiness snack” to become drugs or alcohol down the road. While tempting to mask the bigger emotions, I know helping them work through the emotions will ultimately be the better investment strategy.

While there are many valuable lessons learned from sitting with strong emotions, the one I’ve been focusing on recently is feelings come and go. I’ve mentioned that Keener (4) has been feeling scared of thunderstorms. One of the ways I have been helping him is by teaching him that scared is a feeling. He is feeling scared in the moment, but helping him understand that he doesn’t always feel scared. Scared is a feeling and feelings come and go. After the storm has passed and he is feeling relaxed, calm, and content, we talk about those feelings:

Keener, you were feeling scared when you heard thunder. You don’t like the loud noise that it makes. It’s a startling sound which makes it hard to remember that you are safe. The big boom doesn’t sound safe! Now that the thunder is gone, I can see that you are feeling relaxed. Your body is less tense and your smile has returned to your face. You were feeling scared but that feeling has passed, just like the storm. Feelings come and go.

Talk about unpleasant feelings

Enjoyable strong emotions are easy to accept and embrace. Those are the ones that we wish would stick around forever. It’s the less enjoyable, strong emotions that are so tricky to process. Feeling scared, anxious, disappointed, lonely, rejected, angry, panicked — when these big emotions strike, they feel like they are there to stay.

I’ve found that the best time to learn that feelings are transient is not in the moment, it’s after; at dinner, in the car, or while playing — and everyone is feeling calm. Just like for myself, my kids are not receptive to learning when they are feeling strong emotions.

This can make it even more tempting to avoid talking about strong, less pleasant emotions. That said, incredible teaching is just around the corner. Not talking about unpleasant emotions sends our kids the message that they are wrong, bad, or not OK. Which couldn’t be further from the truth.

The reality is, whether we talk about it or not, our kids are going to feel unpleasant emotions. They are going to feel frustrated, lonely, panicked and uneasy at various times. Talking about it and using the emotional vocabulary lets them know what they are feeling. We can’t shield our kids (and deep down don’t want to) from unpleasant emotions; instead it is our job to teach them that these big feelings will come and go.

The only way to get better at processing these strong emotions is knowing what they are and what they are not. Last week I wrote about shame and guilt. By avoiding dialogue about the unpleasant emotions we all experience, shame may creep in in unexpected ways.

When we talk about and discuss less pleasant emotions, we allow ourselves the chance to see:

  • feelings come and go
  • we are not our feelings
  • we can recognize a feeling and pause without acting on it
  • feelings and behavior are not the same

How to help kids

  • Talk about all of the feelings, not just the pleasant ones
  • Keep a feelings chart available and refer to it often (we keep one in the car and my kids love looking at the different faces/feelings)
  • Highlight examples in the real world. Discuss the crying child who didn’t want to leave the park or the angry person who honked their horn in the car
  • Use characters from books and TV shows to teach your kids about feelings. Ask questions such as, What do you think the character is feeling? How do you know? Oh wow, on this page they seem to be feeling something different – what do you think changed the way they are feeling?
  • Model yourself. Keep it age appropriate but don’t shy away from sharing how you are feeling with your kids. We often say “use your words” and this is the perfect chance to give them the words you are asking them to use.

As an adult, I have far from perfected the ability not to act on my emotions. Which is why we need to always have compassion for ourselves, and our kids, on this journey. Finally, I want to share a quote that David said on Janet Lansbury’s podcast which I just love:

“We own our emotions, they do not own us.”

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