Claire Burgess, Head of Research, Consultancy & Training
We all experience a range of emotions each and everyday. Some can be quite overwhelming, whilst others influence how we approach the people or the environment around us. But what are emotions? The Oxford Dictionary (2016) defines them as “a strong feeling derived from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others” and “instinctive or intuitive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge”.
Being instinctive, emotions are present from birth through to death, we cannot stop ourselves from feeling or experiencing emotions as they are part of our makeup, they are part of being a human being. So why, as adults, do we sometimes feel the need to hide our emotions, particularly from children? As children develop and grow they will start to experience different emotions when faced with different circumstances, they need to learn how to recognise and manage these new feelings to help them to manage their reactions to them and to others.
Recently I was delivering a training session to a group of Australian students on the importance of communication skills when working with children and families. We began by looking at non-verbal communication and our body language. I asked why this was an important part of communication and one of the delegates responded by saying “it helps us show our emotions”. This led us on to a discussion around why this is something that children need from the adults around them. We recognised that we needed to demonstrate emotion so that children were able to learn to recognise different emotions. However, when I asked the group whether we should let children see us when we are feeling sad or if we should let them see us cry, this was met with a resounding “no, absolutely not”! When asked why, the group were in agreement that crying was a sign of weakness and that we would not want children, or anyone, to see this because as practitioners and parents we are there to support and reassure them and not make them feel unnerved or upset by how we are feeling.
I felt these were strong statements which I could not let pass without challenging them. Why is it not ok for children to see negative as well as positive emotions from adults? How will children learn how to manage their emotions when the adults around them view portrayals of negative emotions as a sign of weakness? If children are constantly met with adults who are happy and positive at all times, do we leave children open to feeling vulnerable and abnormal when they feel anything but?
I am not saying we should share and display to children all emotions we are feeling and reasons behind these, particularly in times of real crisis or when topics being dealt with that are too complex for a young child to understand. However, we know all too well that even our newborns are attuned to adults’ emotions from birth, in fact even within the womb. As much as adults like to think that they can hide certain emotions from children I question, can we really? “Psychologists say that there are 412 separate emotions which humans can feel, each of which we express on our faces.” (Morgan 2013:34). Children might not know what is wrong but surely they are able to use those instinctive skills to recognise when those key adults around them are experiencing something that has changed how they are behaving or that they are ‘just not themselves’. If they are able to instinctively pick up on a change within the adult, by not showing and talking through the negative emotions is this going to unsettle and worry our children even more?
We all know that feeling of walking into the office or someone’s home and sensing an ‘atmosphere’. It makes you question what has happened prior to your arrival and you either want to make a quick exit or you change your behaviour and approach. You may find yourself talking to fill the silence or trying to make people laugh as you want to find ways of making the situation more comfortable and support those around you, even if you don’t know what has triggered an emotional response.
When we try to hide our emotions from children I think that we can see this compensative behaviour in them. When we are under stress or upset, through emotional contagion they can sense this, they may for example become louder and sillier or quiet and feel a need to be closer to us. By not acknowledging our feelings with the child, that they are already acutely aware of, is this leading to them feeling worried, upset or anxious but with no true understanding of why or how to handle the situation or their own emotions? Also are they learning that when they feel like this, the best way to handle this is to clam up and try and hide their true feelings? If this is the case, could this lead to emotional inhibitions later on in life?
It has been well documented (Wilkins and Kemple 2011, Devon 2016) that there are increasing number of men who are feeling that they are unable to show their true emotions and feelings for fear of showing ‘weakness’. This is leading to anxiety, depression and, in the worst case, suicide. Is it because we are all trying to maintain that true ‘stiff upper lip’, showing that we can cope with anything that life has to throw at us? Phrases such as ‘man up’ are used in the context that by showing negative emotions one is weak and suggests that individuals need to put those emotions to one side and show the world what it wants to see. But even with a ‘stiff upper lip’ this doesn’t stop us feeling the emotion, just potentially inhibits our ability to deal with and overcome these feelings with the support of others. Why is it not socially acceptable to show that sometimes we need someone to talk to or that we are not coping in a certain situation? It is human to feel vulnerable at times and perfectly acceptable for us to want someone to show us compassion or empathy. How will our children learn to be empathetic or compassionate if they only ever see people who are happy and who hide negative emotions?
A couple of months ago I fell over and yes, I cried (as much as I tried not to). Apart from the huge amount of embarrassment I experienced, it hurt! The people around me offered support in making sure that I was ok, asking “where did it hurt?”, what could they do to help and comforting me physically with a hug. This got to me to thinking about children; falling over is an emotional experience, whatever age you are, it causes physical pain, embarrassment and shock. When we tell children to “jump up”, “it’s ok”, “it didn’t hurt” – are we sure? How can we judge if something hurt or not, be it physically or emotionally, when we have not directly experienced it? This then takes me back to the question, can we teach emotion or is this something that we need to feel, hear and experience first hand to gain a full understanding? Often we cannot control what emotions we feel in a given situation and having someone tell you that an emotional reaction you are having is inappropriate may make you less willing to display these emotions to that person again, but will not stop you feeling that way. As the Oxford Dictionary defines emotions as “a strong feeling derived from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others” one’s reaction to your emotions may well contribute to more negative emotions that you are then even more reluctant to show.
Denham (2007:3) states “children’s emotional competence supports their growing social competence, and vice versa.” We should be showing children compassion and empathy when they are feeling emotional, for whatever reason. Valuing these as emotions that they are allowed to not only have, but also display, can help them learn that an emotional response to a situation is not a ‘weakness’ but more just a signal that they too are simply human. This could aid their emotional development but also emotional intelligence (Rose, Gilbert and Richards 2016), a life skill which can benefit us as humans in our careers and in social situations.
Not only should we not be afraid to show children our negative emotions, but we should value it when they display signs of feeling vulnerable or upset. I have witnessed many times when we want children to display certain behaviours, we say that they are a ”big boy or girl” when we don’t expect them to cry when mummy or daddy leaves them at nursery or school that day. There are times when I hate to say goodbye after a lovely weekend with family and I have to return home or go back to work, those emotions are there and we feel them regardless of how old we are. Emotions are no more or no less significant depending on our age and we all as humans have a right to display these emotions and have those closest to us support us at those times of vulnerability. This helps us to support each other, develop emotionally and grow emotionally closer to our loved ones.
So, when asked should we hide our emotions from children? I say no! We should be willing to share and discuss when feeling any one of the 412 emotions (Morgan 2013) that come with being human. This will enable them to learn that this is normal but also develop the understanding and compassion to be emotionally intelligent adults.
This article was first published in Early Years Educator. Click here to subscribe.
For more information about Norland's Research, Consultancy and Training department, visit our website
For more information about Norland's Research, Consultancy and Training department, visit our website
Denham, S.A., 2007. Dealing with feelings: How children negotiate the worlds of emotions and social relationships. Romanian Association for Cognitive Science., [Online]. Volume XI, No. 1 (March),, 1 - 48. Available at: http://denhamlab.gmu.edu/Publications%20PDFs/Denham%202007.pdf [Accessed 4 August 2016].
Devon, N. (2016) The male mental health crisis is real – so why is it still being ignored? [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/the-male-mental-health-crisis-is-real--so-why-is-it-still-being/ [Accessed 4th August 2016]
Morgan, N, 2013. Blame my brain The amazing teenage brain revealed. 2nd ed. London: Walker Books Ltd.
Oxford Dictionaries. 2016. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/emotion?q=emotions. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com [Accessed 9 August 2016].
Rose, J., Gilbert, L., and Richards, V. (2016) Health and Well-being in the Early Childhood. London: Sage.
Wilkins, D. and Kemple, M. (2011) Delivering Male, effective practice in male mental health [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.menshealthforum.org.uk/sites/default/files/pdf/delivering_male_mens_mental_health.pdf [Accessed 4th August 2016]