The Emotional Dark Age

07/28/2016 07:06 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2016

Over the centuries, the standard ideas about the good and bad ways to raise a child have changed dramatically. In the medieval days, the magic time those of us in the modern era call ‘childhood’ did not exist. The moment a child could physically manage, that child was put to work, often times in roles that would be seen as slavery today. At this point in time, children were not seen as innocent and pure. In fact they were seen as evil and the corporal punishment used to discipline them (which was considered normal and commonplace), was thought to imbue a child with both salvation and goodness. It may be difficult to believe, but in this era, even in aristocratic households, instead of adoring the child that was born to them, many parents thought deliberately belittling and abusing them was the best course of action.


Fast forward to the late 1600s. The birth of the punishment and reward style of parenting. Instead of the corporeal punishment style of parenting, the philosopher John Locke suggested a better way to parent a child. He suggested that parents withdraw approval and affection by “disgracing” a child when they are bad and to “esteem” the child by rewarding the child with approval and affection when they were good. I hope reading that today sends shivers down your spine. But here’s the reality, in the early twentieth century not much had changed. Parenting experts were still formally advocating for the punishment and reward style of parenting. In fact, a 1914 U.S. Children’s Bureau pamphlet, urged parents to adopt a strict schedule for children and urged parents not to play with their babies. John B Watson’s Behaviorism argued in fact that parents could deliberately train children by rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior, and by following precise schedules for food, sleep, and other bodily functions. And who could forget the bible proverb that so many parents have lived by and still live by today “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” This proverb seems to suggest that discipline and corporeal punishment are one in the same.


Fast forward even further. In the twentieth century corporeal punishment started to be questioned in the western world. Many parents started to see corporeal punishment for what it really is, which is abuse. Sadly, today there are still pockets of highly unconscious parents that still abuse their children in the name of discipline. However, many parents use parenting practices like timeouts instead as tools of discipline. It is easy for any of us to look back in time and say to that we were living in the dark ages in terms of parenting. But it is a guarantee that in the years to come, ‘dark ages’ is exactly how we will describe parenting today. We will look back and see that many of today’s common practices are both barbaric and cruel. And the area of parenting that we will judge as most cruel is the parenting of a child’s emotions. To a certain degree we now know how to go about creating a healthy physical climate for our children and thus for each other. But we have no idea how to create a healthy emotional climate for our children and thus for each other. We grow up treating other people’s emotions the same way that our own parents treated our emotions. As a result, we are living in the emotional dark age.

Over the course of history, the ‘emotional climate’ of a household, has not even played a role in our concept of good parenting. The time has come to emerge from a new dark age. The time has come to emerge from the dark age of feelings and emotions. What we are waking up to is the idea that it is possible to be a good parent on a physical level and a terrible parent on an emotional level. This has serious implications when we realize that emotion is in fact the core of our life here on earth. It is also the heart of our relationships.

In today’s world, we tend to struggle with negative emotions the most. The way we approach negative emotions is fueling the emotional dark age. The way we approach negative emotions ultimately dictates how healthy or unhealthy our relationships are emotionally. So the first step we can take to end the emotional dark age is to approach negative emotions from a different angle...

  1. To become aware of the other person’s emotion
  2. To care about the other person’s emotion by seeing it as valid and important
  3. To listen empathetically to the other person’s emotion in an attempt to understand the way they feel. This allows them the safety to be vulnerable without fear of judgment. Seek to understand, instead of to agree.
  4. To acknowledge and validate their feelings. This may include helping them to find words to label their emotion. To acknowledge and validate a person’s feelings, we do not need to validate that the thoughts they have about their emotions are correct, instead we need to let them know that it is a valid thing to feel the way that they feel. For example, if our friend says, “I feel useless”, we do not validate them by saying “you’re right you are useless”. We could validate them by saying “I can totally see how that would make you feel useless and I would feel the same way if I were you”. 
  5. To allow the person to feel how they feel and to experience their emotion fully before moving towards any kind of improvement in the way they feel. We need to give them the permission to dictate when they are ready to move up the vibrational scale and into a different emotion. We cannot impose our idea of when they should be ready or when they should be able to feel differently, on them. This is the step where we practice unconditional presence for someone and unconditional love. We are there as support without trying to “fix” them. Do not be offended if they do not accept your support at this time. There is a benevolent power inherent in offering, that is love in and of itself regardless of what someone does or does not do with it. 
  6. After and only after their feelings have been validated and acknowledged and fully felt, help the other person to strategize ways to manage the reactions they might be having to their emotion. This is the step where you can assert new ways of looking at a situation that may improve the way the other person is feeling. This is where advice can be offered.

Emotions matter. To evolve out of the emotional dark age, we have to start to value and acknowledge the importance of how we feel. To evolve out of the emotional dark age, we have to start showing respect for emotions. The time has come to listen for the feelings behind the words we use and the actions we take.

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