You’re a psychologist. You have studied childhood development. You have learned how to make people feel better.
Why wouldn’t you use your knowledge to bring up your children? If it works so well in the office, why wouldn’t it work in the nursery? Wouldn’t it be derelict to refrain from using your psycho-wisdom to raise your children to be the healthiest, happiest kids on the block?
It makes sense, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, reality tells a different story.
Therapist Lisa Damour explains it in the New York Times. When Damour was expecting her first child a senior therapist took her aside to explain how therapists screw up their children.
The answer will not surprise readers of this blog. The senior therapist explained:
“They [therapists] talk about feelings way too much,” she said.
The image was fully formed in my mind by the time she finished the sentence, the psychologist mother standing over the tantruming 4-year-old saying: “Oh my! You are having a mad feeling. Sometimes children have feelings that get very, very big.”
Of course, if this kind of intervention is as idiotic as it sounds, whatever would make anyone thing that a more adult version would be more effective in session?
Damour explains cogently why an obsession with feelings cannot help children:
When parents talk about feelings too much, they risk giving children the impression that feelings are all-powerful. Parents who regularly defer to a toddler’s tantrums, ask that their school-age child be seated only near children she likes, or excuse a teenager from basic responsibilities because “he’s not in the mood” leave children at the mercy of their own emotions. Life requires that we deal with not getting our way, work with people we don’t enjoy and attend to tasks we dislike. Good parenting requires that we help children cope with these realities.
When children are expected to manage discomfort in order to meet the demands of the outside world, they usually do. In the process, they develop crucial internal resources that can be drawn upon throughout their lives. Children — and adults — who learn to manage negative emotions enjoy more pleasures and many more options than those who don’t.
This implies that when therapists place too much emphasis on feelings they give their patients the impression that feelings are all-powerful. Thus, they relieve their patients of the responsibility to deal with their problems and to negotiate the demands of the real world.
Clearly, feelings have a place. Damour explains how she, as a mother deals with her children’s feelings:
As a mother, I work to keep feelings in their proper place: they provide useful feedback about our lives and the choices we’re making, but they are not in charge. Managing discomfort is not the same as denying it; children are often able to wrangle and contain their large and unruly emotions when parents compassionately name feelings and help find constructive ways to address them.
As I have often had occasion to remark, emotions can help guide you in life… but only if you know how to read them. If you make them the be-all and end-all of life you will get lost in your mind.
Without quite saying it Damour suggests that an excessive and wrong-minded emphasis on feelings undermines confidence and makes it more difficult for people to deal with their real-life problems:
However, as parents it is not our job to put emotional subtitles to our children’s lives. It is our job to help children use language to bring feelings down to size and to instill confidence that most of life’s challenges can be handled.
So much for the therapy culture’s mania about feelings.