When my youngest was a tween, he walked into my office, pulled up the exercise ball, sat on it, and said, “Mom, I need to talk to you.” This was a pivotal moment for me as a parent where I knew my reaction to whatever he needed to talk to me about would forever impact his ability to feel secure in expressing emotions and talking about difficult topics with me.
Humans are emotional creatures. We are challenged as a society to be supported in expressing our feelings in a safe manner. Females are characterized as “being emotional”, while men are expected to keep a “stiff upper lip” and not express their emotions. This inability to normalize and express emotions causes grief, stress and conflict.
Where do our values about emotions, feelings and conflict originate? Think back to your own family when you were growing up. Was it safe to express your feelings and needs? For example, if you fell and scraped your knee, how did the adults in your life respond to your tears of discomfort? Was your pain acknowledged (“that looks like it hurts”), or was it diminished (“that’s just a little scratch-it doesn’t hurt!”). If there was disagreement in your home, was it safe to express differences or was it better to just “go along to get along”. Did your parents and family engage in discussions about topics where different opinions were welcomed or did your family avoid any topics that may surface conflict. How about discipline and consequences?
Our values are generally formed by our early teens. We carry these values forward as adults and parents. Many values are positive and part of your family culture (i.e., religion, education, kindness, work ethic, athleticism, volunteering, etc.). As we raise children, their need for autonomy is expressed and when there is conflict, it may be a result of your own values in conflict with those of your child.
In the interactive presentation, Managing and Engaging in Family Conflict, we look at Sources of Conflict, Values around Conflict, Triggers, Active Listening and Techniques for Alternatives to Punishment. This presentation is a culmination of 20+ years as a mediator, mom and the relevance of techniques offered in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Faber and Mazlish. While this presentation offers techniques for working with your child, the emphasis is on you, the adult, and your own values around conflict.
Emotional Intelligence is a skill. Learning self-management and self-awareness, empathy, social-awareness and relationship management, all components of Emotional Intelligence, require understanding, development and practice. Have you signed your child up for piano lessons, Kumon to improve math, a soccer team, or art classes? Each of these activities has someone supporting your child through demonstration, development and practice as they build the skills needed to understand how to make music, be part of a team, and why algebra is important. Practice and repetition. There are also consequences for not showing up and/or practicing.
As children return to the classroom this year, they are doing so after 2 very difficult and isolating years. Educators have expressed to me their frustration and inability to provide the high level of social-emotional support children are needing. Teachers can only do so much. Parents and guardians, now more than ever, are tasked to be present, open and emotionally intelligent for their children as well as work in partnership with the other adults in their children’s lives.
Our feelings and emotions are what drive us. It creates bonds, love, connection and conflict. By teaching our children skills that allow for effective ways to express feelings and emotions, we support their autonomy, humanness and ability to manage conflict when it arises.
When my son pulled up the ball, I took a moment to compose my face, exhale, and be fully present for him. I listened, nodded, said “I see, mmm, oh”, thanked him for talking with me and let him know that I needed some time to digest what he shared. I also let him know that I would follow up with him as soon as I was ready. We parted and I took a long walk to digest the conversation. It was both the most difficult and gratifying moment in my role as a parent. Because I didn’t judge, offer advice or dismiss him during that initial conversation, he continued to trust me with his feelings and be open to important conversations. And isn’t this the goal as a parent to truly be there for our children when they pull up the ball and sit with us?
Sunny E. Sassaman Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution Consultant