High River United Church of High River, Alberta


Are We Raising Emotion-Controlled Vulcans or Loving Human beings?

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There is something appealing about Mr. Spock from Vulcan on Star Trek.  Steady, controlled, logical, calm and cool in the face of danger.  But really not much fun to be around and with no allowance to connect, love and attach to other people.  The reason – emotions are messy! They are inconvenient and disruptive, catching us at awkward times and leaving us feeling weak and overwhelmed.


Emotions are even messier and harder to deal with when we see them in our children.  They don’t have their tantrum safely in their room at home, out of sight and sound of others, but right in the middle of the store for all the world to see.  Their burst of frustration and anger spills out in the midst of friends, causing hurt feelings all round.  Their fears pour out at night, just when we desperately want them tucked in bed so we can have time to ourselves.  Messy, messy, messy!


There is a trend out there right now to teach children how to manage or control their emotions.  One article I found was entitled, “Controlling Emotions is Key to Pre-schooler’s Success in School and in Life.”  It warns of the dangers of “out-of-control” kids.  But, we must ask ourselves, is controlling emotions good for the child or is it only good for having an orderly classroom to make life easier for the teacher as classroom size grows?  Let’s take a step back and think about Emotion!


Look at the word.  E-motion.  Motion.  Do you see that? What is happening is about movement?        “E” (going back to the Latin) is “out.”  So e-motion is about outward movement.  And, in Physics, movement is started by a force of some sort.  Some energy event sets the (e)motion in motion.


When you see emotion coming out of your child, the question to ask is what “force” is happening inside to begin this (e)motion?  What is going on inside your child?  What have they experienced? What is causing this emotion to happen?  Too often we just try to get rid of the motion, stop it.  We comfort the crying (which is good) or tell them to stop crying (which is not).  I’ve heard parents say, “Let me give you something to really cry about!” (yuck!)  We get them to count or breathe when angry (sometimes we must find ways to keep kids safe in the moment).  Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves, what is causing this (e)motion?  What was the force that started it in (e)motion?


Continuing with physics, if there is (e)motion, then it has to go somewhere.  If the (e)motion isn’t allowed to happen, the energy builds up until it comes out in another way, often bigger and more destructive – an explosion. I find it interesting in the same article mentioned above, that it is noted that “out-of-control” behaviour is getting worse.  So…the more we try to supress or control emotions, the more out-of-control behaviour we are seeing.  You know that scenario, where someone is trying to stuff something in a box, and it keeps popping out in different spots, and then just when they think they’ve got the lid on, the whole thing explodes! (E)motion will come out somewhere.   


How much of our difficulty in creating space for our children’s emotions (and even ours) has to do with our own discomfort?  Do we feel embarrassed, anxious or guilty?  Do we feel inadequate and helpless? That’s quite likely the case. The reality is that if we can set aside our own discomfort and create the caring space for our children’s emotions (and our own), then we will quite likely move through the emotional distress faster and we will have created a stronger relationship with our child (and with ourselves.)


What we really need to remember is that children (pre-schoolers especially) can’t really “control” emotion. They aren’t developmentally ready and their brains haven’t developed the areas in which emotional control is possible. Oh, children will try to do it in order to please us.  But ultimately emotion will come out somewhere, especially when it is a huge and strong feeling. And if we keep controlling emotion as we get older, it can lead to depression and even physical illness.  So what is a parent and teacher to do with these messy emotions?


Listen! Love! Create space! and Be a detective!


And look for what is underneath!  Be the detective. Your child likely won’t be able to make the connection that the upsetting incident at morning recess on the playground is coming out as frustration at their brother this evening.  Or that worry about going on the bus for the field trip is coming out as stubborn refusal to do the reading project. Or that fear of tomorrow’s swimming lesson is coming out as monsters under the bed tonight.


If the reasons were obvious, the emotions wouldn’t be so strong and messy.  Don’t expect your child (even teenagers) always to understand why they are feeling what they are feeling.  They might know, but they also might make up an answer just to try to make sense of what they are feeling, or they might not want to tell you the truth because they fear it would upset you.  So be the detective!


Emotion is meant to move.  It is meant to move outward.  And it is meant to tell us something about what force is at work inside.  There are no good emotions and bad emotions.  All emotions are there to tell us something.  If we try to supress sadness, then we also lose our capacity for real happiness.  If we suppress frustration, then we also lose our capacity for loving.  We need all of our emotions in motion, and we need to make sense of why they are moving, rather than trying to control them.  Tears (emotions) and thumbs are the two things that make us distinct as human beings!


Emotion is messy.  But, as appealing as Mr. Spock-the Vulcan is, I’d rather raise a human child with a soft and expressive heart, who can feel the love of others and can express love to others, who can feel both the joys and yes, the sorrows of life, who can find comfort in my arms and who can know deep down in their bones that I am with them and God is with them when the emotions get overwhelming and messy.

May 7, 2015                             ©Susan Lukey 2015

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