“What are Feelings For?”
How can we help our children manage feelings better?
December 20, 2021
[Kyle]: So, I find this just really helpful to me, Sara, to just see feelings as just information. Remember we agreed they're not good or bad, they just are. All they are is information, you know, the feelings we have in our body are there to tell us something about us in relationship to that event or that person or that situation, whatever it is and if we don't listen to it, we're missing a key component.
[Kyle]: Hello, and welcome to episode 10 of The Art of Raising Humans podcast. I’m Kyle.
[Sara]: I’m Sara.
[Kyle]: And today, I really wanted to hit on a topic that I just got to speak about it, Abby and I went and spoke at a mother's preschools group about feelings, right? And I wanted to speak about it, because I just think we haven't specifically touched on it yet and I think it's such a challenge in our culture, you know? Run into so many people who are like, “I don't want to have them” or they're just overwhelmed by them, they don't seem to know what to do with them, you know? And I just thought, for you and I, maybe because we're counselors, we talk about feelings all the time, but there was a time I thought they were kind of messy too, I didn't want to be a part of them and I know we kind of hit this a little bit back on our episode like, one or two, somewhere in there, talking about the brain, talking about the-- But I wanted to specifically kind of like narrow down on what are feelings for. So, I want to start out with just, if you can agree with me on this, Sara, just some basic truths, okay? That feelings are not good or bad.
[Kyle]: You agree with that?
[Sara]: I agree.
[Kyle]: So, even though even though some are more comfortable than others, right? Like, what kind of feelings do you prefer?
[Sara]: I prefer happiness. Well, kindness isn't really a feeling, it's more of an action, but happiness because we all just feel peaceful and happy all the time.
[Kyle]: I prefer intensity and passion. Happiness is great, but I like to see, like “go get it!”, you know? So, I feel more comfortable with those because we naturally bend more that direction, right?
[Kyle]: Now, what kind of feelings are you uncomfortable with?
[Sara]: I really don't like anger.
[Sara]: That's really my big one, yeah. I’m even okay with some sadness.
[Kyle]: [Laughter] I don't mind anger at all, I’m really uncomfortable with sadness and weakness, you know? Like--
[Sara]: Weakness is not a feeling.
[Kyle]: Okay, oh shoot. [Laughter] Well, a feeling of helplessness, right?
[Sara]: Okay, I’m okay with that.
[Kyle]: Yeah, I don't like that feeling. Okay, I don’t like the feeling of helplessness. So, I think there's specific ones, like we're saying that we connect better with, that when we see them in our kids. Like, if I see anger from our kids, typically that doesn't bother me, you know? Typically, I’m like “okay, cool, let's do it”. Whereas I know for you, you don't like it as much, but like, man, if Brennan is crying a lot, I definitely don't slip into the stereotypical male of like “get up, stop being a baby”, but I am kind of thinking like, “it's enough, dude. Like, we got it, you're sad, let's move past that”, right? So, it's hard for me to be patient with it, I do find I have like a certain time limit on how much of that, before kind of I want to move past it, right? Is there certain feelings that like, you do that with as well that you definitely say “hey, I’m okay sitting with that, but then I want to move past the other”?
[Sara]: I’d say in general all the uncomfortable feelings, but especially anger. I want-- I just think “let's just all get along, you really don't need to be that upset about it”, you know? I decide rather, you know, the level of upsetness that's appropriate [Laughter]
[Kyle]: That’s true, I do that.
[Sara]: Once in a while I feel that with sadness, I’ll think “okay, that's a really tiny scratch, I have to get a magnifying glass to see it. I think you’re okay” [Laughter]
[Kyle]: Exactly, “you didn't get shot, you just got scratched”. Yeah, yeah.
[Sara]: So, once in a while I might feel that with sadness or “it's just a cookie, I realize it broke, but--”. So, sometimes I have that same reaction to sadness, but in general it'd be anger.
[Kyle]: Okay, and the ones I hear the most about, I was taking notes, I was thinking “what's the ones that parents most seem uncomfortable with?”. Whining's a big one, right? So, lots of people get really triggered by whining and complaining is kind of in that same category.
[Sara]: Yeah? That’s kind of behaviors.
[Kyle]: Okay, fine.
[Sara]: [Laughter] Attached to feelings, attached to feelings.
[Kyle]: Exactly, okay, okay. Disappointments, right?
[Sara]: Yes, yes.
[Kyle]: Thank you, that's a feeling and then, anger. So, typically people are uncomfortable with those, right? But what we've learned in our research, right? Especially with Dr. Siegel’s research and what's going on just in the past 20 or 30 years.
[Sara]: Yeah, there's all kinds of.
[Kyle]: We've learned that one of the greatest measures of success is emotional regulation. So, the ability to feel feelings, not stuff them, not be overwhelmed by them, but be able to regulate them.
[Sara]: Yeah, just to recap, it wasn't regulation, because I see people say “oh, emotional regulation!”, they think that means somebody just always happy and not feeling things. Emotional regulation, what Kyle just says, they feel the feeling, but then they know what to do with it, they move through it.
[Sara]: They don't get stuck in it, they don't stuff it, they don't ignore it, they don't-- They move through it. They are fully aware and present with the feeling and moving, you know.
[Kyle]: So, when I was doing some training with Dr. Laura Markham from peaceful parenting, I thought it was really cool when she walked us through the history of kind of parenting models. So, I just want to hit up on this real quick, of just most of the parenting models that we were raised with or that, you know, that we have seen of the past, you know, 100 years or so, typically in general is behavior-based approaches. So, there we see a behavior and we then we want to change that behavior, so that's where you use things like, rewards, we use consequences, punishment, those are ways to externally change what the kid is doing, right? So, when we're focusing on feelings, the idea is “oh, wait, that behavior came from a feeling”, okay? So, what we know from cognitive behavioral therapy is that, feelings and thoughts happen quickly and then the behavior is the result of those feelings and thoughts interacting with each other and beliefs that we have about ourselves, stories that we say, all those things are happening very quick.
[Kyle]: So, if I focus on the behavior, you could find some success, but typically it's not going to be long term sustainable success, it's not going to be long-term transformation that you're wanting to see in the person or the kid. So, instead, you're actually wanting to focus on, what is the feeling that first triggered the thought that then brought about the behavior? So, if we can help our kids be more aware of the feelings, you see how they're able to start it for the first step, instead of going at step four, you know? You want to start at step one, to help understand what brought about the behavior and then if you can help them shift that, naturally the behavior changes.
[Sara]: Yeah. So, we have, yeah, we have those events happen, something happens, you know? Brother hits sister, takes toy or something like that and that, boom, and then she's automatically within, like you said, seconds, those feelings and thoughts and behaviors are all in your brain, all that wiring is starting to happen and the response is going in your brain.
[Kyle]: I think, you know, this made me think when you're saying that. The way you see this happen a lot with how people and parents typically manage feelings, is kids will be getting ready for school and then the kid was “I don't want to go to school” and instead of seeing like, what is the feeling behind that and connecting with it, which at some point we'll do a later podcast about empathy, but typically the reaction is “you have to go to school, okay?”. Like, it's immediate where we're reacting to the statement and then trying to like, contain that. “You have to go to school, okay? So, just get dressed and go to school”.
[Sara]: Yeah, because it starts this-- So, that statement happens, then my own thoughts feelings, all that fires in my brain and I think “oh no, they're gonna-- this is going to get bad, they're going to really blow up”.
[Kyle]: “This could be a pattern”. Yeah, yeah.
[Sara]: “They’re going to refuse school, we’re going to be doing this every day, it's going to get worse and worse” and so, we want to naturally kind of stomp that out as quick as we can. “No, you like school, school's fun, you see all your friends”.
[Kyle]: “Your friends are there; you know you like your teacher”.
[Sara]: “You have to go to school; school is not a choice. This is this is like your job, I go to my job, you go to school”.
[Sara]: We start all that because we almost-- It's not a panic mode, but you know, that's like “oh no, I’ve got to really quickly stop this because it's going to get out of hand” and it is inconvenient.
[Sara]: It disrupts. We have this nice flow that, I mean, that's a great example of, you know, you get up, you're getting ready, it's already a busy morning getting everyone out the door with all the things that they need on time and then, that happens.
[Kyle]: I think as you're saying that though, I think sometimes the parents also think “I don't want to go to work today either” [Laughter] and then the parents--
[Sara]: “And I make myself and I don’t think about how I don’t want to go to work.”
[Kyle]: Yes, the parent will say “you know, sometimes I don't want to go work, but I make myself go to work anyway” and we'll say that like we're almost training them to ignore the feeling.
[Sara]: Yeah. Well, that's what we've learned to do. And we think “okay, sort of works for me, so let me pass this down to you”, but it's not all that intentional--
[Kyle]: When think about what is the feeling with these kids that say “I don't wanna go school”, it could be fear, it could be sadness, it could be the kid is scared about a bully, it could be the kid feels stupid in school, whatever, it could be all.
[Sara]: Tired, just rather be with you.
[Kyle]: Yeah, maybe they woke up too much that night, all those kinds of things. I was even thinking as you said that, what if one day I said to you “I don't want to go to work today” and then you said “why would you say that? You love work! You see all these cool people!”. If you did that I’d be like “would you be quiet?” Like I’m just saying I don't feel like going to work today. I’d rather you say “what's going on?”, right? And that's what I think we would do, I don't know, many married couples or friends that would do that like, start giving all the reasons why you should want to go to work, you know? We should be like “oh, man, is it pretty hard? You got a lot going on today?” [Laughter]
[Sara]: Even if we do or if a friend does that with us, you know, it doesn't-- I don't know how successful that generally is.
[Sara]: Maybe you fall for it, maybe go “you're right, you're right, I should just be, I’m really happy, I’m going to work” and you just take that feeling, stick it way back in the dusty closet of your brain and move forward.
[Kyle]: Well, and I want to kind of touch this real quick, of how Siegel talks about the difference between the right brain and the left brain. So, Dr. Siegel, he's got a fantastic book called “The whole-brain child”, where he discusses how the right brain is more where that statement comes from, you know? “I don't want to go to school” it's more this kind of like just, a feeling more centered part of our brain, it's the most developed when we're little kids and as we get older, we start to more develop the left brain too and what's cool, the whole-brain child idea is putting both of them together. So, not only to feel one way, but also think about how I feel, right? And so, what we tend to do as adults and I think as parents is, we have learned to kind of not listen to that or not give that much power the right brain, so the kid, who's more naturally inclined towards that, they make a statement from the right brain and we try to counter it with the left brain. Like, “come on, you've got great friends!”, all those are left brain activities, right? And what Siegel would say is, they're going to look at you and say “you don't get it, you don't understand”, because you're actually speaking a different language than what they are speaking, right? They're more speaking a feeling language. So, that's why it's so powerful, the study of the neuroscience in this field is, if I can just speak to the right brain, that will actually allow them then to connect to the left brain and start to develop that, you know?
[Kyle]: And I’ve seen you do that many times where, one of the kids has a feeling about an experience that happened and Siegel has another great thing on this called “the wheel of awareness”, where you kind of walk them through the story of what happened, trying to help them with their whole brain see the situation. So, you know, instead of saying “well, that kid did that, so that kid must hate me”. Then you walk them through it and you connect with the right brain, move to the left, eventually they can go “well, maybe isn't that he hates me, maybe he was just upset at me at the time and I bet if I go back and talk to him, I think things will be better” and you'll see this much more like open approach, you know? To the situation, rather than this closed idea that like, what I felt was the totality of what happened, but in the same way, you don't want the parent coming at it from just this thinking rational space and saying “move your feelings out, just be rational and logic”, you know? And even it happens a lot of marriage. Lots of times, you'll see in general, the wife will be more okay talking the feeling language and the husband will somehow think the rational logic is better and that's where you see a lot of conflict happening in marriage too, you know?
[Sara]: Yeah, I think it's something we intentionally have to build in ourselves and build in our child, both sides of-- Both of those skills, both sides of that brain are important, they play a role and you'll see if we don't develop this in ourselves and in our children, you can be very, very emotional and don't know what how to regulate those emotions.
[Kyle]: Yeah, overwhelmed by it, yeah.
[Sara]: Or you can be shut off to all feelings and you're just this little robot almost, walking around and in logic and thought land.
[Kyle]: Completely detached from yourself.
[Sara]: Yeah, and very unaware and unawake to those feelings and that's in your brain for a reason, both are very, very important to your well-being, to your joy in life, relationship connection, there's all sorts of things. Both of those things are important and you have to develop them, like you said, it could be kid not going to school or it starts very young when they're little and they fall down and get hurt and they're crying or when your baby is crying, even if you don't know all the things going on, you can start that early with “tell them the story”.
[Kyle]: I love it, yeah.
[Sara]: “Talk about the feeling that you're seeing”. Show their brain the two sides, bring that together and when they're older, when they're eight and a friend hurt their feelings, talk about the story, talk about the feelings, bring those two things together and you can do that repeatedly and you'll see the story shift, you'll see what you were saying, how it can start to open up and otherwise, they can carry that emotion around with them, stuffed in a deep dark closet, but it's not gone. We think it's gone; it's not gone and then the next time something happens with a friend, that feeling is still there, it gets pulled into that and then they're dating somebody someday and that all-- Both of those stories get pulled in. We want to start with delving into those things and processing through them with our thoughts and our feelings and as adults, we can do that. “Why did someone cut me off on the road?” or “my boss yelled at me”.
[Sara]: Or “what did I feel about that? What am I telling myself about that? What story is going through my head?” and work out both sides.
[Kyle]: In a simple way, I saw you do this a lot when the kids were little and, of course, as a guy, who just in general-- I mean, this is a general-- I think it's getting better in our culture, but in general, women are more okay talking about their feelings and discussing them, because they did that as girls lots of times.
[Sara]: Is acceptable, men were kind of shameful to do that.
[Kyle]: Exactly, and we've seen that happen. I remember one time we were on a beach and some boy was crying and the dad kept saying” you want to cry like that?” and it was all like the boy was taught to shut it down. The only thing that was acceptable was competitiveness, you know, was anger, it was those kinds of things, but sadness and those things weren't. So, I know that's somewhat in me, a little bit, but I remember you-- The blocks would fall over and you'd say something like “oh, you're so sad, because you built those blocks and took so much time and then they all fell over and now you don't know if you can do it again” and I love that, you do something and then like [Laughter] It's like you helped them shape the story and you just gave them like, words to the story and it's not that you could read their mind.
[Kyle]: You were just trying to articulate what the story might be.
[Sara]: Well, and as your child builds language and builds the ability, they can actually turn to you and say “no, I wasn't sad about it, I’m mad” or “I’m--" and build that feeling, you've got to build the feeling language with your child, because a lot of kids they know sad and mad.
[Sara]: And you've got to build in frustration, irritable, tired, stressed, anxious, worried.
[Kyle]: Yeah, using all those words, yeah.
[Sara]: Yeah, you want to build in those words, but your child as you do that together, can look at you and they start to correct it and that's so exciting when they know themselves that way, that they're aware of what they're feeling and then, they can start telling you the story. At this moment, you know, our son fell down and broke his arm and we had to do a lot of-- We've intentionally done a lot of this, let's talk about the story, what did you feel in those moments? And he's-- As you keep doing this over a few times, because I don't want this to get stuck in his head, I don't want him to be afraid he's going to fall down and break it again, I don't want him to drive by that field ever when we drive by it to think “oh, that's where I broke my arm” and those things get hung up in our bodies. Our bodies store these memories, even if we think we're not awake to them, we think that we've put that away and it's never coming back out, our body is storing it, it's in there and I don't want that for him. So, we're doing intentional things of talking about it, talking about the feeling, because that's a trauma of sorts, there are all kinds of levels to traumas.
[Sara]: But breaking a bone, going to the hospital.
[Kyle]: Yeah, it’s traumatic all this stuff, yeah.
[Sara]: And so, we've got a-- That's just an example of when you bring those things, on how you want them--
[Kyle]: Also on that story, Sara, I’m even thinking, when he found that he didn't have to have surgery. You and I were like “cool, that's great!”, you know? He was kind of sad about it and that was confusing, but because we had the feeling language, we came back and said “hey, what is it you're so sad about?” and he said when we told him he was gonna have surgery, we told he could pick where he wanted to eat dinner after the surgery. So, he thought now that he wasn't having surgery, he didn't get to pick that and I was like “oh my gosh like, kids are so funny”. Like, “son, when you get your cast, you can still pick where you want dinner, dude”. So, I think that's funny. So, I want to go back to this idea of what are feelings for. I think, so we want to raise kids who are emotionally regulated, who feel their feelings and know what to do, but I think we got to ask that question. What are they for? If we're not going to focus on the behavior, if we're going to try to focus on the feeling, what is the point of them? How can they actually be helpful to us?
[Kyle]: So, I find it's just really helpful to me, Sara, to just see feelings as just information. Remember we agreed they're not good or bad, they just are; all they are is information. You know, the feelings we have in our body are there to tell us something about us in relationship to that event or that person or that situation, whatever it is and if we don't listen to it, we're missing a key component to what-- Like, that could really tell us more about who we are and about how that thing impacted us or what we want to do in this world, right? So, I think they're trying to tell us something about us and if we don't listen to them, then we risk not becoming fully integrated, we risk missing key components to understanding what drives us, right?
[Sara]: Yeah. I don't-- If you've ever met someone who maybe has really successfully shut off their emotions, you can see the lack in their life and as it is through, we know sadness, we know joy, we know anger, we know peace, these things exist and we wish we could just turn on one, but actually that one can exist without knowing the other and that's what we-- That is what gives depth and richness to our lives, to our relationships. If I just went without feelings and I just went and did my job and then I went and fed my kids and then I went and did-- All the things in life about any feeling, there would be so much “my life would not be as rich as it is”.
[Sara]: And even though the feelings can feel overwhelming at times, it is moving through that and feeling the depth, the height of the feelings that gives that richness to our lives and our relationships.
[Kyle]: Well, in light of that, I’m even thinking of all the work I’ve been able to do with substance abusers. That almost always, almost always, the motivation for substance use is either to feel something more, you know? Like they're not feeling much, they're kind of dead and so, they'll take something like, cocaine or meth to feel something more or to numb the feelings, you know? And eventually, almost every one of them, the ones who are really an addiction is, they don't see feelings as safe, they see feelings as scary and almost all their feelings are uncomfortable. So, they drink a lot and they do other things to numb their ability to feel anything and the coolest thing is, when they get clean, the coolest thing they'll tell you is that moment two or three months after it's kind of gone through the system, when they first enjoyed a sunset again, when they could just see it and it brought them joy, you know? And so, I think people, those uncomfortable feelings you and I discussed at the beginning, I think people want to get rid of those. People don't want to feel them in themselves and they don't want to feel them in their kids, so they try to create a way to not feel those, but like you just said, I can't have both, I can't have one without the other, I can't get rid of those, like you said, anger and yet still, just always have happiness and joy and all that stuff, right? It's a component, they're all intertwined together and if I don't let myself feel sad, I’m also not going to be able to feel happy, you know?
[Kyle]: If I won't let myself feel scared at times, I’m also not going to feel peace, you know? I won't know what they are, I can't just choose one set, all the positive and comfortable ones and so, I just really want to caution parents that I think you and I can slip into that too, where we want to just get rid of all those and just focus on the others.
[Sara]: Yeah, in ourselves and in our children.
[Kyle]: And in our marriage too also, yeah.
[Sara]: And you have to start-- If you have aren't in the practice of it, you have to kind of sometimes intentionally sit down and sit with a feeling, let it be there, go through it.
[Sara]: Think you're --"What are my thoughts? What are my--?” and if you're not in the habit of doing that and it's inconvenient, it's hard, sometimes I just got to set that aside and go, but come back to it.
[Kyle]: The very first thing I do with all kids that come in to see me and I know you did something similar to when you were working with kids, is check their feeling vocabulary, see how many words they have. So, anybody who's listening to this podcast, it's a great fun thing to do, to see how many feeling words can you and your kid come up with. I typically try to-- Even with kids down to five, try to come about 20 words, somewhere on there and we try to like, expand their ability to not only articulate what's happening in them, but understand it, using words to communicate to themselves and to others what actually is happening in them and you'll find people with an expanded vote feeling vocabulary, are more integrated people.
[Sara]: And what's interesting is, yeah, they're more integrated and you actually build the skill of-- It's funny, when we actually give space for the feelings, it gets better.
[Sara]: If you fight it and resist it, it builds and builds, but if you actually just accept it and move into that space and just sit with it, it then lets it release.
[Sara]: Feelings won't stick around forever, we move through feelings, feelings come and feelings go, we don't have to be afraid of them, we can just receive them and almost talk to them, you know, talk to ourselves [Laughter]
[Kyle]: Yeah, that made me think I wanted to share with the idea of doing that, that like feelings can be like a little kid going “mom, mom, mom, mom, mom” and you may be like “I wish that kid would stop doing it”, but if you just said “what is it you want?”, the kid tells you and then the kid's able to move on and feelings are the same way. If a feeling continues, I can try to ignore it and say “if I just don't answer the kid, the kid will leave me alone” or I can just look to the feeling and say “anger, what are you trying to tell me? Fear, what are you trying to say to me? Anxiety, what are you--?” and you can teach your kids to do this too, to be curious about what the feeling is trying to tell you and then, I’d write it down, I’d write down what it's trying to tell me. So, and then, you'll find the feeling kind of goes away, you know?
[Kyle]: Dr. Lawrence Cohen has a picture of when the feeling is driving the car and you're in the passenger seat, don't kick the feeling out, because the feeling ain't going to go away. You can kick it out, it's going to hang up on your car and cover the windshield and do all this stuff, right? Instead, have the feeling move over to the passenger seat, drive your car, take control of your car, but ask it “what are you doing here?” and then just listen to what it's got to say, you know? And I just think that's a really fun thing that I’ve done personally in my own life and it's really helped me understand why I’m anxious about something.
[Kyle]: You know, lot of times you said it has to do with things in the past that I never thought about before, right? And they're connected. So, I would encourage parents to increase that feeling vocabulary, make it to where that's more how we discuss these things, notice which feelings you are comfortable with or uncomfortable with. I wanted to end with this Fred Rogers quote, where he says this, it's a really great quote. He says “anything that's human is mentionable and anything that is mentionable, can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone”.
[Sara]: I love that quote and I wanted to kind of mention “The listening rabbit”, it's a little kid's book if you have young kids and honestly, it's something even I would read with my teens or tweens, you know, you could-- It's not a bedtime story for them, but it does a great job of just showing us-- When we say we're talking about the feelings and thinking about the feelings, we're not saying “fix them”.
[Sara]: We're not saying “okay, you're sad. Okay, now let's go make you happy”, okay? So, I think it's very important to mention we're talking about just talk about the feeling, talk about the story. You actually-- You'll see how much healing and how much freedom comes from that and we move, we move-- Yeah, just by talking about it, don't worry about the fixing it part and “The listening rabbit” is a little kid's book that does a great job of giving an example of what that looks like.
[Kyle]: Kind of walking through concrete with it, because lots of us didn't have people do that with us.
[Sara]: Yeah, it's just, it's well written and a good read.
[Kyle]: So, once again I want to thank you all for joining Sara and I in this conversation. We love having these talks together as a couple and we love sharing them with you and so, we would love to get your feedback. If there's things you would like us to have conversations about, we'd love for you to throw those topics at us. Maybe specific ones in your family or just general ones, general questions you have; we'll make those topics in the future. I hope this discussion on feelings has really helped you understand feelings better, be less scared of them, be more open to them in you and in your child, because I really think it's going to help you be able to understand yourselves and them themselves better in that process. So, please go on, wherever you're listening this to please go on to rate us, you know, comment on it, all those things help us be seen more and if you want to visit our Facebook page, it's Parenting Legacy on Facebook and Instagram. You can go to our website parentinglegacy.com and you can definitely send us comments that way too.
[Kyle]: The Art of Raising Humans podcast should not be considered or used as counseling, but for educational purposes only.