I used to be that teacher, that person who had a hard time with hearing children be upset. Admittedly, I relied on distraction, mostly out of a deep sense of discomfort with the loudness and urgency of the crying. I would try to get the child to focus on something else, when they simply needed to have me there to weather the storm with them. Even now, it still triggers something in me when my own children cry, my heart beats faster and an internal sense of panic washes over me…even if I know there is nothing seriously wrong. I still work on it, everyday. I have learned so much about myself, my own upbringing and my feelings just by being present with others who are having strong feelings of their own. I have challenged myself to sit quietly, pay close attention to my body language and be appropriately responsive in the face of someone else’s upset. This is the reflective work I put in to ensure that my relationships stay connective, and whoever I happen to be with doesn’t feel stifled or invalidated. It is an ongoing journey and has helped me develop a deeper and more complex sense of empathy. It is the work of being human.
There have been studies that point to the fact that crying serves a biological purpose and actually strengthens interpersonal relationships (more on that here), and there are indeed different types of tears. Tears that are shed for emotional reasons (called psychic lacrimation) have a chemical composition that differs from others. The tears themselves contain a significantly greater quantity of the hormones prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, and Leu-enkephalin, and the elements potassium and manganese. Which is why when they are cried out, we tend to feel better. It’s more than just okay to cry…it’s actually healthy, not to mention cleansing and healing. To get an artist’s view of the different types of tears under a microscope you can look here.
Of course there are all kinds of societal and gender-based expectations consistently being placed on us about the act of crying. One report suggests that women cry 30-64 times a year, where men cry only 6-17 times (although these findings relied on self reporting, so they could be inaccurate). Even children in our school have made comments like “crying is for babies” and “that’s not a reason to cry.” They seem to have an acute awareness of what is deemed acceptable by society’s standards, even at their tender age. And there is definitely an unfair expectation of boys in particular to “hold it together.” We are also steeped in sports culture in this country, which unfortunately plays into this imbalanced notion that males should display less emotion…even when they are upset. For a fantastic Ted Talk on that subject look here. We have so much work to do to push back on these kind of unhealthy attitudes, and it starts with looking at our own biases about feelings.
So what is our role, or better yet our responsibility when talking with young children about emotions and emotionality? Mr. Rogers, while making a plea to save public programming, said this:
“I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.”
If we are here to help children make sense of their world, if we are committed to guiding them through difficulties…shouldn’t we take all of their feelings seriously and treat them with the respect, attention and time they deserve? Shouldn’t we help them be in dialogue with their feelings so they can make meaning out of their experiences and be able to better communicate and cope? It makes sense that the more we talk with children about their feelings (and our own) the more we can destigmatize emotionality. We can help frame the narrative for them and point to the fact that there are no such things as “negative” emotions. We can help them understand that feelings come and go like weather, and have seasons but also serve a purpose.
These feelings connect us, they are what make us who we are. This time in life, when young children are learning about self regulation and controlling their impulses, they need to hear that their feelings are okay…and everybody has them, whether they are a boy or girl, old, young or somewhere in between. We are here to feel. We are here to feel together.
Questions to ponder:
- How were feelings treated in your house growing up?
- How does your body feel when you are listening to someone else’s upset feelings?
- What are your specific needs when you are sad, scared, hurt or angry? What kind of things do you want to hear when you’re experiencing them?
- Are you able to show your authentic feelings without shame or embarrassment? To whom? Why?
- Is there a childhood memory you can recall where you felt heard and deeply validated?