**The ideas contained in this post are the opinions of the writer and communicated without reference to supporting documentation. The writer also recognizes that BPD is a disorder that affects both males and females, and uses of “she” or “he” in the communication of ideas are not intended to covey sexual bias. Breakaway MHE Disclaimer
Below are what I believe to be valuable insights and recommendations for parents on the topic of emotions and emotional development. These come from my learning and experiences in therapy with many patients and consults with colleagues. They also come from my personal experience as both a parent and a child. They are my opinions as well. Furthermore please note, I recognize that parenting is one of the hardest jobs on earth and would therefore never claim perfection in this role or attempt to find others unworthy of it. Nonetheless, an improved understanding of the subject would be helpful from my vantage point as a therapist working with people every day.
Besides being genetically predisposed to heightened anxiety and more extreme emotions, I believe it is essential to learn a little bit more about the types of early life experiences had by individuals who develop mental health difficulties. Experiences with parents and other attachment figures during childhood can make a dramatic impact on emotional functioning and contribute to emerging patterns of emotional avoidance and mental health disorder later in life. In other words, a person who struggles with mental health typically does not establish a tolerance for and acceptance of certain types of emotional experience while in childhood and subsequently reacts counter-productively when these types of emotions are experienced later in life.
The kinds of moments that have been repeatedly indicated to me in therapy by patients who suffer from common mental health disorders include variations of emotional invalidation and abandonment. What this means is that parents of emotionally vulnerable children in many cases suggest, request, or point blank demand that their children ignore, suppress, or otherwise avoid the open expression of emotion. Perhaps because parents hear the feelings so often and are tired of it; probably because they don’t have the time for it; maybe they believe that emotions contribute to a weak character, or perhaps they are emotionally inept themselves and fear an emotional escalation if attention is provided to the child in these moments.
**Knowing how to provide a healthy and constructive response to a child in moments of emotional difficulty is essential, but often lacking in parents.**
When emotions are expressed by the child regardless of parental wishes, a typical response is for parents to apply punishment, or more often to threaten punishment if the child does not stop. For instance, a parent might say “go to room if you are going to do that,” “I’ll give you something to cry about,” “if you keep that up, you’re going to lose your favourite toy.” Other parents may shame or embarrass the child for being too expressive, possibly saying things like “What’s wrong with you?” or “why must you always be so difficult?” or “look at yourself” or “cut that out already!” Other parents may flat out ignore their children when emotions are expressed beyond what they believe is appropriate.
At any rate, when tactics such as these are employed repeatedly, messages are sent to the child that IT IS NOT OK to have his emotions, and likewise that IT IS NOT OK to be who he is (a person who has these types of emotional experiences, or who has feelings period). The emotional experience becomes a thing that the child believes he must work to avoid because it gets associated with stuff like abandonment from attachment figures, rejection from attachment figures, and feelings of shame and worthlessness. All of these potential consequences are anxiety provoking for a child, even though the child doesn’t recognize them as such. The child’s first experiences in the world, therefore, suggest to him – in the most potent way – which emotions are unsafe.
The problem becomes that the child does not learn to live with and regulate deal with a non-negotiable part of himself…. the emotional center of his brain. Getting through life and managing stresses require knowing about this part of the self, loving this part of the self, and accepting this part of the self. To ignore this neurological reality is to set the child up for failure in his relationships, and most notably in his relations with adult partners. It becomes a failure because the individual cannot handle the emotions that get experienced when common life challenges and stresses are encountered (disagreements, losses, frustrations, rejections, etc.).
When emotions are experienced that he can’t tolerate, he feels threatened and reacts as though the threat is real, very likely getting angry or otherwise acting counter-productively (passive-aggressive or aggressive), and perhaps also giving up on resolving the challenges and stresses of life. Another approach is to attempt ignoring the emotional pain and acting fake, possibly hoping that by ignoring the problem it will just go away. Unfortunately, we can’t ignore this kind of neurological reality and the consequences of neglect. Potential long-term outcomes for the child include unfinished business (failed attachment with parents), commitment issues, relational turmoil, lack of fulfillment, emptiness, and other disorder.
Of course, most parents have never even thought about emotions and emotional development in these ways before having children. Most never even realize such a connection exists between feelings and mental health problems. Learning this type of information is not a condition or requirement for making babies. Go figure! But people often inquire “Why is mental health such a big problem?”
I can see now that many (or most) parents go into parenthood believing that their primary job is to supply love through materialism… meet the material needs and all else will fall into place. Wow, what a fallacy that is! Material objects can NEVER match the gift of love a parent can provide in the form of teaching emotions, and therefore offering increased immunity from mental health disorder. Providing such a gift does not require money, but it does cost in the way of time and learning enough about mental health and self to even come close to following through.
For a parent to help their child understand emotions, the parent needs to be emotionally stable enough to provide support through the identification and validation of emotions as they are experienced. Indeed, the parent needs to be aware of (and have the ability to regulate) his feelings to follow through with this kind of teaching. Some will always say you are letting your child get away with being a brat if you attend to their emotions, but the truth is that healthy attention doesn’t necessarily mean the removal of expectations or giving in to demands. Children benefit from validation coupled with learning to take responsibility. Validation means showing empathy, being with, and listening to understand a person and helping them to settle, even when it is difficult for that person (or child) to accept reality as it is.
Validation requires patience and a willingness to let the emotional storm pass. When the storm does pass and the child senses he has been supported and mentored through it all by a significant other, he begins to realize his worth and develop a profound and lasting inner security. Developing this internal security is self-love – something that can’t be purchased at the store, and it isn’t available anywhere except through intelligent parent-child relationship formation.
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