Growing Our Emotional Garden

My thoughts for today, pulled from an old post I wrote in 2013 when my oldest was 3. It came up on my Facebook memories and I thought I’d share for both contemplation and conversation because I’m often asked if this “attachment parenting” thing works. This is one of the most important cornerstones of this parenting style, in my opinion.
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“On the subject of tantrums. “Tantrums” are opportunities for parents to connect more deeply with their children and an opportunity to help their children connect more deeply with their own emotions.
I’m tired of having to call this behavior “bad” when I know it’s simply him learning to understand boundaries and not yet old enough to know how to cope with those emotions. It’s our job to teach them to weather through those feelings to learn the lessons. Not to punish them for feeling too much and not understanding how to process and express those feelings.”
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So, now that some time has passed since then, many I’m sure wonder how we’re doing with this method of parenting that allows emotions to happen. It’s a valid question. Does it work or are they now just horrible children who take advantage?

Well, I’ve spent the last 7+ years parenting with this philosophy, 5 since 2013, and here are my thoughts thus far:

I don’t like the word “tantrum”. I never have and I never use it becuase I feel that it defines the experience inappropriately. Tantrum is equated to being spoiled or bratty. Most of the time, when a child is having what most people would call a tantrum, what is really happening is an overload of emotions that the child cannot express or contain because they don’t know how.

Like Tink says in “Hook”, “this is the biggest feeling I’ve ever felt and this is the first time I’ve ever been big enough to have it”, when we expect these tiny people to understand their big emotions, we really aren’t being very fair to them.

Tink is a fairy and she is tiny. Barrie writes that because she is so small, only one emotion will fit inside her at once which is why she feels her feelings entirely and reacts inappropriately so often. When she is angry, she is ONLY anger. When she is jealous, she is ONLY jealous. In the movie, “Hook”, she becomes an adult-size woman and can finally understand her big, big feelings. Just like Tink, our children can only process so much emotion at a time and need us to help guide them through. Help from a trusted adult, not punishment for feeling.

Punishing children for having big feelings but not having the adult ability to process and release those feelings does not help them to process them better. It’s like punishing a fairy for only being capable of one emotion at a time. It teaches them that their feelings are not as important as others’ feelings. It teaches them that an adult’s comfort level is more valuable than their own. This does not teach a child respect. It teaches them that the ones they love do not respect them and that they must do whatever is necessary to make others happy, even if they are not. Those are NOT life lessons I want to teach my children.

These lessons stay with our children and are brought directly into their relationships as they get older. We are molding their adult personalities from the moment they are born. If we wish for them to feel free to express who they truly are as adults, we cannot squash their big feelings in childhood. I believe our job is to help guide them toward controlling themselves, not to control them for our convenience.

I want them to learn to respect themselves and honor their feelings and the feelings of others. I want them to have empathy by understanding how THEY feel so they may more easily understand how others feel. This, I hope, will teach them to make good decisions with others and instill an intrinsic desire to generate joy in their own, and others’ lives.

So, what do we do? I call it growing our emotional garden. We have feelings, we plant them, we tend them and grow them. We pull weeds, we reenforce the things we want to keep and we build beauty through understanding. Basically, we talk about feelings A LOT in our house. When anger happens, when sadness happens, when meltdowns occur and big feelings take over in physical ways, we talk about it. We explore anger. We dissect sadness. We unwind and unravel meltdowns and trace the paths back to the origin. We make emotion real. We give it a shape, a color, a name. We consider where it came from and how we can learn to release it or have power over it before it turns into the monster who has power over us, makes us do things we don’t really want to do like hit, yell, throw things, etc..

I’m constantly amazed at how often people remark about how well my children communicate their feelings. They are amazed at how well they can articulate how they feel and we can talk through those experiences. They ask me how – how is this possible? The answer is simple. I let them feel and I never punish them for experiencing feelings or gaslight them into thinking their feelings aren’t real or don’t matter.

Now, that doesn’t mean we never get in trouble, but it’s important to understand the distinction we make between feelings and behavior. We punish behavior, not feelings. We validate feelings and then deal with behavior. There is a rule in our house that everyone knows, everyone follows and it’s the cornerstone of how we live and communicate as a family:

No one else is responsible for your emotions.Seems simple enough, right? It’s actually quite hard to follow because how this simple fact gets translated into action is with phrases like the following:
Don’t allow your anger to be directed toward others just because you made bad choices.
You may not lash out at others just because you are feeling sad, angry or upset.
Hurting others, either by yelling or hitting, as a reaction to a feeling is NOT acceptable.
If you cannot get a handle on your emotions to have a conversation, you spend some time on your own thinking about it so you don’t hurt others. When you are ready to deal with it calmly, we are here to help.
No one needs to see you being mean – you can do that in your own room with the door closed. We’ll be here when you’re ready.

Everyone, including adults and visitors, must follow this rule because the second major rule in our house is:

LEAD BY EXAMPLE. I call this living in an “emotionally transparent home” where we tend our emotion gardens together. Which means – we share our feelings openly and we are comfortable admitting when we allow our feelings to cause negative reactions. Here’s an example of how I am emotionally transparent with my children: Just yesterday, I apologized to my daughter for getting angry and raising my voice. I told her I was feeling frustrated because I’d already asked her 3 times to do something and I was upset that she didn’t listen to me. I apologized for yelling and asked her to please follow through with the direction I’d given her. SHE then apologized (unprompted) to me for not listening the first time. I told her I forgive her and thanked her for listening. She went and did the thing I asked and everything was fine. I feel these moments of full disclosure with our children bring us closer together. In fact, I’m certain of it.

Now, I hope I’m not making all of this sound like it’s a walk in the park and that our lives are perfect and beautiful, because this is all really hard work and it isn’t an exact science. Meaning, it doesn’t always work, especially when you have a child with special needs who has a hard time processing emotions. That being said, we still strive toward the goal and I DO see it helping both of them to process, understand and learn to reflect upon their feelings before they mindlessly react more times than not and that, to me, is a win.

I see this truth in their ability to come to me and say things like, “mom, I felt jealous of my sister because you said she was good today and I got in trouble, so that’s why I hid her toy”. I see it working when I overhear things like, “I’m sorry I was mean to you, I was angry because you were mean first”. These are the truths that prove real understanding is actually taking place in their brains and our efforts are not futile. These are powerful roots for their gardens that will last a lifetime!

As they grow into their tween and teen years, I expect these lessons to be challenged multiple times on a daily basis and I’m going to have to modify things, expand and grow this philosophy. That’s okay, because that’s how humans learn, right? Constant repetition and reenforcement through the various stages of our lives and brain development. We change, we grow, we experience things in new ways and the lessons we learn to cope change and grow with us. My hope is that by then, we will have such a strong foundation that no matter which way the wind blows, no matter what weeds try to seed in our earth, our garden will stand strong.

I encourage all parents to sit on this idea and consider the ways your family could benefit from an emotionally transparent home. If you have any questions about the specific things we do to try and foster this experience in our home, please post your questions below and I’ll do my best to answer. There are several resources and tools I use to help me teach them about emotions and healthy expression and I’d love to share what I’ve found with you!
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