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Mixed Feelings and Mixed Messages

Excerpted from

Between Parent and Child: The Bestselling Classic That Revolutionized Parent-Child Communication

By , ,

Children love and resent us at the same time. They feel two ways about parents, teachers, and all persons who have authority over them. Parents find it difficult to accept ambivalence as a fact of life. They do not like it in themselves and cannot tolerate it in their children. They think that there is something inherently wrong in feeling two ways about people, especially about members of the family.

We can learn to accept the existence of ambivalent feelings in ourselves and in our children. To avoid unnecessary conflicts, children need to know that such feelings are normal and natural. We can spare a child much guilt and anxiety by acknowledging and voicing those ambivalent feelings:

"Yon seem to feel two ways about your teacher: You like her and dislike her."

"You seem to have two feelings without your older brother: You admire him, but you also resent him."

"You have two thoughts on the subject: You would like to go to camp, but you also want to stay home."

A calm, noncritical statement of their ambivalence is helpful to children because it conveys to them that even their "mixed-tip" feelings are not beyond comprehension. As one child said, "If my mixed-up feelings can be understood, they are not so mixed up." On the other hand, statements such as the following are definitely not helpful: "Boy, are you mixed up! One minute you like your friend, and then you resent him. Make up your mind, if you have one."

A sophisticated view of human reality takes account of the possibility that where there is love, there is also some hate; where there is admiration, there is also some envy; where there is devotion, there is also some hostility; where there is success, there is also apprehension. It takes great wisdom to realize that all feelings are legitimate: the positive, the negative, and the ambivalent.

It is not easy to accept such concepts inwardly. Our childhood training and adult education predispose us to the opposite view. We have been taught that negative feelings are "had" and should not he felt or that we should he ashamed of them. The new approach states that only real acts can be judged, while "bad" or "good" imaginary acts cannot be. Only conduct can be condemned or commended: feelings cannot and should not be. Judgment of feelings and censure of fantasy would do violence both to personal freedom and to mental health.

Emotions are part of our genetic heritage. Fish swim, birds fly, and people feel. Sometimes we are happy, sometimes we are not; but sometimes in our lives we are sure to feel anger and fear, sadness and joy, greed and guilt, lust and scorn, delight and disgust. While we are not free to choose the emotions that arise in us, we are free to choose how and when to express them, provided we know what they are. Thai is the crux of the problem. Many people have been educated out of knowing what their feelings are. When they felt hate, they were told it was only dislike. When they were afraid, they were told there was nothing to be afraid of. When they felt pain, they were advised to be brave and smile. Many of us have been taught to pretend to be happy when we're not.

What is suggested in the place of this pretense? Truth. Emotional education can help children to know what they feel. It is more important for a child to know what she feels than why she feels it. When she knows clearly what her feelings are, she is less likely to feel "all mixed-tip" inside.

Mirroring Emotions: Reflecting Children's Feelings Helps Them to Understand How They Feel

Children learn about their physical likeness by seeing their image in a mirror. They learn about their emotional likeness by hearing their feelings reflected to them. The function of a mirror is to reflect an image as it is, without adding flattery or faults. We do not want a mirror to tell us, "You look terrible. Your eyes are bloodshot and your face is puffy. Altogether you are a mess. You'd better do something about yourself." Alter a few exposures to such a magic mirror, we would avoid it like the plague. From a mirror we want an image, not a sermon. We may not like the image we see; still, we would rather decide for ourselves our next cosmetic move.

Similarly, the function of an emotional mirror is to reflect feelings as they are, without distortion:

"It looks like you are very angry."
"It sounds as if you hate him very much."
"It seems as if you are disgusted with the whole situation."

To a child who has such feelings, these statements are most helpful. They show clearly what his or her feelings are. Clarity of image, whether in a looking glass or in an emotional mirror, provides opportunity for self-initiated grooming and change.

As adults we have all felt hurt, angry, afraid, confused, or sad. At times of strong emotion there is nothing as comforting and helpful as a person who listens and understands. What is true for adults is also true for children. Caring communication replaces criticism, lecturing, and advice with the healing balm of human understanding.

When one of our children is distressed, afraid, confused, or sad, we naturally rush in with judgment and advice. The clear, if unintended, message is: "You are too dull to know what to do." On top of the original pain we add the new insult.

There is a better way. When we offer the time and compassion to understand the child, we send a very different message: "You are important to me. I want to understand your feelings." Behind that vital message is the reassurance: "As you feel peaceful, you'll find the best solutions."

Tags: Parenting and Families