Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Let your child express themselves! We are told that quitting or halting personal expression leads to lower self-esteem, depression, and unhappiness. "We should encourage our children to express themselves; anything less is suppression." The experts claim if you want them to be happy, self-confident, and independent, they should be free to express how they feel, how they want, when they want. The problem is this is often taken to the extreme. I once had a client who's child struggled with anger issues, tantrums, and outbursts. The school counselor had suggested the parents have a room at home designated for the child to let out his frustration and anger without consequences.
I cannot tell you how important it is to teach children to express their feelings appropriately and to learn self-control. Self-control is not the same as suppression, as Peter Kreeft notes, "Self-control is not the same as repression any more than taming a horse is to ride, is the same as tying up and putting in the barn. It is order, hierarchy, government." Further, without facilitating self-control, you are reinforcing your child's false narratives, rumination, and hopelessness.
We usually only focus on what to do with misbehavior. However, bad behavior is often an indication of how your child deals with negative emotions. If we can help our children express their feelings appropriately and adequately, we can prevent much of the misbehavior.
Parenting books will often tell you not to correct or discipline your child's outbursts. "your child will get the message that their emotions are bad, and they suppress them until they get to the point that they overflow through a meltdown episode." For more reason why this line of thinking is entirely false, read my article on (time outs). We need to set limits with our children on what is and what is not acceptable ways to express their emotions. Without them, children often become more impulsive and entitled.
What are some ways we can help our children appropriately express their feelings?
Name their feelings: This can be implemented at a very young age. As soon as your children start expressing their feelings and developing a vocabulary, we want to put labels on them. Continue to give your child the words they need to express themselves as needed throughout their childhood and youth. "I understand you are frustrated, but..." Tell them you love them when they give you a hug... When this is done throughout your child's life, in many different contexts, it will motivate your child to use their words and not just their bodies for emotional expression. An increased vocabulary also gives them descriptors for what they and others are going through. Sometimes understanding and knowledge is enough to keep one from becoming emotionally crippled.
Teach them to recognize how their siblings and others are feeling. This will help them learn to empathize with others and help them understand their own values, which encourages emotional growth. It improves how they interpret emotions, those exhibited by others, and those exhibited by themselves. It helps them gain greater clarity to the mental states and perceptions of others and themselves. This, in turn, helps them learn to respond appropriately in other situations.
Apologize! As parents, we are given ample opportunities to make right our wrongs. When we act rashly with anger and yell, apologize. It emphasizes that your standards are universal. It builds on their sense of empathy. It helps them take responsibility for their actions and helps them develop their conscience, which in turn helps them make an effort to control themselves. It also helps them learn that it is not always easy to do the right thing, but we must. "Even adults and my parents mess things up, but they make an effort." It also asserts they are not their emotions. Much depression stems from identifying with our emotions and personalizing them. If we as parents apologize for our mistakes and our own emotional outburst they innately learn that feelings and emotions, as important as they are, are not part of our essence. Instead, they learn that emotions are undeniable indicators of personal goods which point to our true nature and that, when rightly ordered, can aid in their flourishing.
When your children learn how to express their feelings in a respectable manner, it is important to make sure they feel heard and that it can be done in a safe environment. They need to be able to express how or when they feel an injustice done by others or by a parent when something is "not fair." Again, this should only be done when and if they can do it in a respectable manner. You as the parent need to know how to offer a response in a respectable manner as well. It is important to remember that sometimes a line does need to be drawn, especially if it becomes bickering back and forth.
The bottom line is that we should not tolerate our children's emotional outbursts, regardless of what some of the parenting books might tell you. We need to instead help facilitate emotional mastery. Help them calm down, and express themselves respectfully. They will grow into emotionally healthy young adults!