What are feelings? Feelings are energies that oftentimes precede human actions. Thoughts can create feelings that prepare us for actions. For example, some thoughts can create angry feelings that might encourage us to shout or get physically involved. Feelings could be described as “fluid” in that they seem to pass through us. They rise and fall; they increase and decrease. Feelings sometimes build up when they are not expressed, and that can create tension or stress that can result in unhealthy actions. Being able to identify and appropriately express feelings can prevent a build-up of stress and can help us communicate effectively.
Why do we have feelings? Human beings have the most evolved language system of all the species on earth. Humans also have the most highly evolved social system. Feelings play an important role in social communication. Just as the body has a built-in balancing system, called sensation, that tells us when things are too hot, too cold, too rough, too soft, too sharp, or too smooth, feelings can tell us when we have to confront, wait, be alone, or join a social relationship. Feelings are the natural energies for balancing relationships. By communicating our feelings, we can develop healthy relationships.
The four major feeling groups need to be considered. There are basically four major feeling groups; they are characterized by the words, anger, fear, sadness, and happiness. These are considered primary feelings in that they appear to be prevalent in all cultures and they have existed since the beginning of humanity. Another set of feelings, secondary feelings, are made up of various combinations of primary feelings. Also, there are many degrees and intensities of feelings. For instance, the “anger” group might include everything from simple annoyance to irritation, determination, frustration, anger, and rage. The “fear” group might include everything from caution to worry, fear, dread, and panic. The “sad” group might include everything from aloneness to disappointment, hurt, rejection, abandonment, and isolation. The “happiness” group might include everything from happiness, joy, love, bliss, excitement, and humor.
The four major feeling groups are each of great importance. Each of these feeling groups plays a different role in how we communicate and behave. The energies from the anger group tend to direct us to move ahead, try harder, and confront situations. The energies from the fear group tend to direct us to wait and observe our surroundings. The energies from the sad group tend to remove us from our activities. The energies from the happiness group tend to make us share or join with someone or something. If we are closed off to any one of these feeling groups, we will be handicapped in both relating and communicating.
The place to begin in understanding the four major feeling groups. We begin, as always, with the basis of trust and acceptance. We trust that we won’t be hurt by what we say. We accept that there is freedom to say it as we see it.
By about age five, most children can distinguish between feeling sad, mad, happy, and afraid. To test this, simply ask your child to name things that make him or her mad, sad, happy, or afraid. If you ask the child about just one category at a time, you will see that he or she can pretty well identify the categories. The child may need a little help with mixed feelings. For example, I’m mad that my brother broke my favorite toy, and I’m sad that I don’t have it anymore.
Asking a child, teenager, or adult, for that matter, how he or she feels can sometimes make a person feel confused or overwhelmed. A rush of mixed feelings can be difficult to express. So you might get an, I don’t know, or an OK response. If you get this type of response, break it down into smaller responses. You might ask, Are you frustrated or mad about anything in this situation? Are you worried or afraid of anything in this situation? Are you disappointed, hurt, or sad about anything in this situation? Are you pleased, happy, or proud of anything in this situation? These questions will help sort out a host of feelings, and you will get a better overall picture of the child’s feelings. In addition, the child will feel better because he or she will feel more completely understood.
For example: Billy borrowed Matthew’s new bicycle without permission and had an accident in which Billy broke his collarbone and ruined the bicycle. Billy was rushed to the hospital for X rays, bandages, and an arm sling. Because the front wheel and the frame were bent, the bicycle was pretty much a loss. Fortunately, the parents were in the position to buy Matthew a new bicycle, even though it was quite expensive; but Matthew seemed down. The parents asked Matthew what was wrong. His response was, “I don’t know.” The parents replied, “How can you be so unhappy? We bought you a new bicycle.” Matthew’s response was, “I don’t know.”
Later that evening, Matthew’s father went into Matthew’s room and said he wanted to talk about what happened. He told Matthew that he loved him very much and that he knew that it was sometimes difficult to have a younger brother. He asked him, “What’s the most frustrating thing for you about Billy?” This time Matthew’s response was, “He comes into my room all the time without permission. He takes my things without asking, and he either breaks them or loses them. And you guys don’t even punish him!” Matthew was angry not only with Billy but also with his parents. His father responded, “I guess you have a right to be mad. I’d probably be mad, too, if someone broke something very special to me.” Matthew continued, “Yeah, I was watching that bike for months, hoping nobody would buy it before my birthday. I really loved that bike.” (Matthew started to tear up.) His father replied, “Didn’t you like the new one we bought you? It’s just like the other one.” Matthew responded, “The new one’s OK, but I really liked the other one.” Giving Matthew a hug the father said, “I’m really sorry, too, that your bike got broken.”
“What did you think when you heard Billy screaming?” the father continued. Matthew said, “At first, I was scared because I didn’t know what happened. Then, when I saw him with my bike, I was mad and I was glad that he hurt himself. I even started calling him names. But then, when I saw the bone sticking out of his collar, I got really scared. That’s when I ran to get Mom. It was gross.” His father asked, “What were you thinking while you waited in the emergency room?” Matthew said, “I was wondering if Billy was going to die, and I was feeling bad because I yelled at him while he was on the ground.” The father reassured Matthew of his love for him. He reminded Matthew that he wanted the boys to share, but that he and Matthew’s mother would try to help protect Matthew’s space and possessions in the future. Matthew’s somber mood disappeared.
This is an example of an effective way to get a child to discuss his or her feelings. Pay special attention to how the father in this case didn’t judge the goodness or badness of Matthew’s feelings, but simply allowed him to go through a process. It is also very important to notice that, when discussing feelings, one sufficiently expressed feeling naturally flows into the next feeling. After expressing his initial feelings of anger, Matthew naturally moved to his feelings of sadness. In the course of the discussion, Matthew expressed a full range of emotions, including some guilt for wishing pain onto his brother.
Not every discussion will go this smoothly, but, with practice, both you and your child will be better able to identify and discuss feelings.
How to help your child get rid of negative feelings. All feelings are natural and normal. Some feelings are labeled “negative” because when they are not understood or dealt with appropriately, they can lead to destructive or unhealthy behaviors. Frustrations that build to the boiling point, hurts that are not healed, fear that is not overcome, guilt that is unforgiven all lead to destructive behaviors. Identifying and expressing these feelings is the first step in transforming them. The second step is understanding the causes of those feelings.
What causes your child to have these feelings? It is not always easy to find the source of a feeling. Sometimes feelings are caused by thoughts. The thought might include images that come into our head, things we say to ourselves, or memories that are evoked. Daily we are bombarded by sights and sounds that can evoke feelings. If we succeed in our achievements on any given day, or if we fail to meet some expectation, we might provoke certain feelings. Since feelings are related to various biochemical actions in the body, eating foods, doing exercises, feeling tired, getting sick, or doing any variety of physical activities can affect our feelings.
A good way to discover where a feeling originated is to ask, When did I first start to feel this way? Frequently, this can help us pinpoint where a feeling began. By asking what happened and how the person perceived what happened, you usually can get a good idea of how the feeling got started. You can also examine the validity of the adopted perception.
How do I change my child’s feelings? Step three is changing an unwanted feeling. Thoughts, feelings, and actions are not the same things, but they are all intimately related. The simplest way to change your feelings is to change either your thoughts or your actions. If you put different thoughts in your head, if you develop a new perspective, or if you change your thoughts, you will begin to feel differently. On the other hand, if you change your activities, such as listening to the radio, watching television, reading a book, exercising, going for a walk, you will also begin to change your feelings.
If a feeling is persistent, then talking to someone else about it can help you get a new perspective on the matter. In addition, when we talk about feelings we allow them to pass, because feelings are naturally fluid.
Children show individual differences in expressing feelings. We know that there are wide differences between the sexes, between age groups, and between individuals when it comes to discussing feelings. In general, women are more open and willing to discuss feelings than men. For this reason, it is sometimes better, especially with boys, to ask them specific questions rather than general, open-ended questions like, How do you feel?
Adolescents in particular can be very closed to sharing feelings with adults, especially if the children have not built up a good rapport with at least one parent during the growing years. However, the same rule applies to teenagers as to younger children: trust and acceptance are key.
By the time many children reach adolescence they have already learned to avoid certain subjects with their parents. During adolescence there is a natural drive toward independence that makes sharing feelings with parents a difficult task. Adolescents yearn to make their own decisions, regardless of whether they are able. However, adolescents who come from families that encourage discussion with parents will often do so as they grow up.
It is also important to respect the seriousness of an adolescent’s feelings. If a child of twelve says he or she is in love, a parent might smile and joke about it. To the child, however, this may be a very serious relationship, and if you do not take it seriously, you may alienate your child. Keep your child’s confidence; that is, do not tell somebody else about what happens in your child’s personal life. Some parents feel free to discuss their child’s personal problems with others. This leads to feelings of betrayal and hurt in your child. Your child has to feel secure that you understand him or her and confident that you will treat his or her feelings like you want your feelings treated.