On Fridays, Mark and I split the work day and tend our four month old granddaughter. When her face lights up with a huge toothless grin, or she bursts into a laugh, my entire body feels the joy and wants to engage her more. However, when she is distressed and crying, I am immediately seeking ways to stop her upset. Her cry tells me that something is wrong and it is my job to fix it! Emotion is the only way our darling granddaughter can communicate, and it is my job as the care-giver to solve the problem for the infant.
With this universal experience as the introduction to parenthood, no wonder as our children grow and mature we experience strong reactions to their emotion. When they experience pleasure or joy, it gives us a sense of relief, we have done our jobs. However, when they experience distress, we may immediately try to “solve the problem”. This desire comes from the best of intentions as we learned that this is our role from day one.
As a therapist who works with parents and children, I frequently see children who have low self esteem because their parents are still working from the model of trying to solve the child’s negative emotions. This well intentioned desire hurts the child and the parents as the child does not get a chance to develop a tolerance for negative emotion, as well as a sense that they can handle their feelings.
Our lack of ability to handle emotion without rushing to fix it, or trying to talk someone out of their feelings, or even ignoring negative emotion, is frequently the underlying cause of many relationship difficulties. We end up trying to solve our partner’s emotion as well as our children’s feelings.
If we were to examine some of the most common problematic behaviors that are experienced in our society, it is clear that many of these behaviors have developed as a way to cope with negative emotion. Whether it is excessive drinking, eating, shopping, TV watching, or working, many of our addictions come from our discomfort, and inability to sit with, and listen to our emotion.
If our parents did not feel comfortable with our negative emotions, how can we begin to have a road map for dealing with difficult emotion? It is a matter of learning and implementing new skills. If you want to learn how to become comfortable with negative emotion, the book The Heart of Parenting, by John Gottman, Ph. D., is a good place to start. Additionally, working with a qualified therapist on emotion coaching can also be very helpful. When you have learned to provide empathy and compassion, without the need to fix or dismiss negative emotion, you will find a new level of connection with those you love.