How Childhood Shapes the Way We Relate to Our Emotions

By Susan David

Imagine that you’re sitting around the dinner table, and you notice that your child is unusually quiet. Her spaghetti and meatballs—usually a reliable favorite—sit untouched on her plate. You ask what’s wrong. It turns out someone else got the trumpet solo she’d been practicing so hard for. Without thinking, you jump into fix-it mode, talking about private lessons or asking if she wants to go out for ice cream. While your actions are well-intentioned (no parent wants to see their child in pain), the impulse to brush away the difficult emotions in favor of fixing may do more harm than good.

Society is shaped by display rules—implicit or explicit expectations about how and when it is “appropriate” to express, and even have, certain emotions. 

We are often taught from a very young age that challenging emotions (like sadness, anger, and fear) are best ignored, or at least kept to ourselves. 

Perhaps as a child you were told to go to your room and “come out when you have a smile on your face” after a violent outburst at a sibling who broke your favorite toy. The lesson was obvious: anger is not an “appropriate” emotion to express. What your caregiver was likely trying to teach you was that anger was not an appropriate emotion to express in that way, that is, by punching your sibling. Emotionally agile parents will be more likely to raise an emotionally agile child, yet many of us grow up believing that our most challenging emotions must be hidden away, a notion which often leads to adults being comfortable with only a few emotions and much less so with others.

These display rules have a long lasting effect, showing up in the way we speak to our children and following them into adulthood. Display rules stigmatize normal, natural human emotions and lead us to believe that we must emotionally perform a certain way in order to be accepted in the world. This can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as bottling and brooding, where we either suppress our emotions or ruminate on them in ways that keep us stuck. You can begin to dismantle display rules with your children, colleagues, and yourself with these three simple steps:

  • Acknowledge the person’s emotional experience. Everyone is human first. 
  • Make sure they know they are valued, especially when they are experiencing a difficult emotion or are not their “best self.”
  • Reassure them that their emotions are valid. If you are a caregiver and your child is responding to their emotion inappropriately, separate their emotion from their behavior when you talk about what is “allowed.” All emotions are okay but not all behaviors are okay.

These powerful strategies create a path forward, one born not of quick, false “fixes” but rather through healthy processing of emotions. The child who is comfortable experiencing their most challenging emotions will become more skilled at recognizing those emotions, understanding them, and dealing with them in constructive ways. This, in turn, leads to better relationships with both oneself and others. 

And remember, even if you’re well beyond childhood yourself and are no longer guiding a little one, you can always turn these steps inward to help heal your inner child, too.

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