THE BLOG
01/16/2015 04:54 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2015

Why Not To Say 'Don't Be Upset'

Samantha Rodman PhD

Emotions are very important. They give us information about the world; for example, if we are angry, that probably means that we have been harmed or violated, or if we are sad, it means we are experiencing some sort of loss. Emotions are also a lot shorter-lived than most people think. Most emotions pass in a matter of seconds or minutes, although sadness can take over a day. Also, the life of an emotion is shaped like a bell curve, with a peak and a decrease. Most people never realize this, though, because right at the height of the emotion, when it feels unbearable, they escape or suppress the emotion, and don't get to experience its natural decrease over time.

For example, let's say you're scared of public speaking. Your boss asks you to give a presentation. You either make some excuse and get out of it entirely (escape) or maybe you do it but you pop a Xanax first. Either way, you have not allowed yourself to see that about 10 minutes into the presentation, your anxiety would likely peak and decrease, and, while you wouldn't feel amazing, you also would likely survive. Instead, you escaped or avoided fully feeling the anxiety, and therefore you continue to think, I could never do that; the fear is intolerable and would never decrease -- it would just get worse and worse and then I would have some kind of attack or something in front of everyone. (Exposure therapy is the opposite of this.  When you put yourself and keep yourself in an anxiety provoking situation, you do get to see that your anxiety eventually abates, and then you aren't as scared of the situation anymore.)

Another thing that people do with emotions besides escape from them and avoid them is suppress them. So here, you'd say something to yourself like, "I'm not scared of public speaking at all." You'd buck up and avoid any possible anxious feeling and get through the presentation like a robot on autopilot. So why isn't this that great? Emotions are like Whack-A-Mole. When you suppress them, they pop back up somewhere else. In graduate school, I was taught the analogy of "don't think of a white bear" to explain what happens when you tell yourself (or someone else) NOT to feel an emotion. You're thinking of a white bear now, right? The same paradoxical effect occurs with emotions: if you're told not to feel one, you will feel it all the more. But now, instead of just feeling the emotion, you'll also feel guilty and ashamed for feeling a way that is "wrong" or that you've been told not to feel. So in our public speaking analogy, you will continue to feel anxious about public speaking, because you suppressed your anxiety rather than allowing it to naturally peak and decrease. You'll also be anxious that next time you won't be able to power through, and your anxiety will really come out, embarrassing you.

So, instead of escape, avoidance or suppression of emotions, the most healthy and effective way to handle them is acceptance and mindfully watching them peak and decrease. It's like you are observing your own mind, thinking, Oh, look, there's the anxiety. Wow, it's getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Now it's really high. Okay, now it's coming down. And now further.  (This is also a good way to deal with urges to binge or mindlessly eat, or any urge or emotion that makes you distressed.)

Since you're an awesome parent, I know you want to use this new information about emotions to help your kids.  So let's look at an example of two ways to handle a common parenting scenario:

1. Your 5-year-old is playing with a toy. Your 1-year-old takes it. Your 5-year-old, surrounded by a minimum of 47 other toys, begins to shriek. You say, "Don't be angry, he's a baby. Take this other toy." Your child is mollified and you feel like you did a good job. Weirdly, though, your 5-year-old hits the baby later, "accidentally," or acts like a real piece of work at dinner later, and you know what, the exact same scenario happens the next day and your 5-year-old reacts the same way.

2. Your 5-year-old is playing with a toy. Your 1-year-old takes it. Your 5-year-old, surrounded by a minimum of 47 other toys, begins to shriek. You say, "Wow, you seem really angry." Your 5-year-old says, "Yeah! He took it!" You say, "I know!" Your 5-year-old then will likely say something like, "He's a baby, I guess," or may take another toy.  Sometimes he will keep talking about how angry he is for a little while first, sometimes not. Oh, he may do all the same bad things later as the kid in the first scenario, let's not fool ourselves here, but at least you taught him the following lessons:

  • Emotions are okay.
  • Emotions are understandable.
  • Emotions don't actually last very long, and they are nothing to be scared of.
  • Emotions are not wrong.
  • You can express yourself in this house.
  • You have the ability to problem solve yourself.
[bctt tweet="Emotions are nothing to be scared of."]

This is the kid who will come to you with other issues later on in life, and who won't suppress his own emotions as readily with mood stabilizers (like food, alcohol, medications), because he won't be scared or ashamed of his emotions. Oh, and does this mean that you have to condone behavior you don't like? Let's look at this scenario, and let's even place it in a typical household that uses timeouts for egregious offenses:

Your 5-year-old smacks the baby in the face and says "BAD BABY! YOU TOOK MY STUFF!" You come in and say, "That is a timeout for hitting. There is no hitting in this house." After timeout, you say, "I understand that you were mad at the baby. That's okay. But you cannot hit the baby. That makes baby very scared and upset. He doesn't understand why he got hit, and he feels very sad. What is something else you can do when you feel that mad at the baby?"

Here you have done the following:

  • Empathized with our child's emotion
  • Not told our child that he is bad for having an emotion
  • Not even said he is bad for expressing the emotion
  • Not even said he is bad for hitting (although we did emphasize that the house rules are no hitting)
  • Helped him cultivate empathy for the baby
  • Helped him problem solve for alternate behaviors to do when he is angry with the baby.
If you're patient enough to do this all without the timeout, more power to you. But this is for your average parent, and if my kid smacked the baby, they better be in timeout so that I don't lose it on them completely. Further, it's fine to have consequence for behaviors, but not to have consequences for emotions.

Share if you love empathy and like the idea of emotions peaking and decreasing, like the friendly bell curve you recall from math class. Or your weight over the winter and spring. Whichever. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Likes Knowing That Emotions Pass.

For more visit Dr. Rodman at Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, or Twitter @DrPsychMom.