I learned early in my daughter’s toddler days that savvy moms don’t gasp or shriek when the baby falls and bumps herself. At playgroups, the correct response was modeled for me: toddler falls down; toddler looks toward mom with a face beginning to scrunch with distress and fear; mom, watching from across the room, responds reassuringly; baby goes back to playing. I, too, learned to call out you’re okay! in a pleasant sing song, despite having my heart in my throat.
It turns out that the moms in my playgroup were onto something. Young children look to the emotional reactions of others to gauge the appropriate way to proceed. This is known as social referencing. Social referencing is a vital way that young children come to understand when they need to be afraid, versus when they can move forward with confidence. A baby who catches his mother’s eye and reads distress and alarm is more likely to wail than a baby who is met with confirmation that all is well.
But social referencing isn’t just for toddlers. As our kids grow older, they continue to take cues from us about how they’re doing. We are always sending subtle messages about how resilient we believe them to be—and our kids can’t help but respond as expected. As a therapist who works with many mothers, I see a concerning trend of adults having difficulty enduring uncomfortable feelings in teens. This can result in us unintentionally telegraphing expectations of emotional frailty, which in turn influences what kids expect of themselves.
I have a wise colleague who likes to say that a big emotion is not an emergency. Teenagers, of course, often have big emotions. How we as adults respond to these super-sized feelings cues young people, priming them to react to adversity with either resilience or fragility. If we acknowledge their distress but signal that we are confident that they can manage it, we help them learn adaptive ways of handling overwhelming emotions.
This is important because there is some evidence that difficulty managing feelings may lead to the development and maintenance of poor mental health. Research has linked use of maladaptive emotional regulation strategies—such as rumination, suppression and avoidance—with a wide range of disorders, including depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, anxiety and borderline personality disorder. Along with toddlerhood, adolescence is a key time when parents and other adults help kids learn how to regulate their feelings. We do this by modeling and encouraging adaptive responses for dealing with emotions that feel out of control—responses such as acceptance, reappraisal and problem solving.
Accepting difficult feelings allows us to relate to them with curiosity and openness. When feelings are accepted, they can be talked about and worked through. This can then set the stage for reappraisal—a process of gaining perspective on our difficulties and the feelings they generate. Acceptance and reappraisal in turn prepare us to engage in effective problem solving, whereby we seek constructive avenues for handling the challenge that gave rise to the negative emotions.
We cannot help our kids learn to manage big emotions if we don’t allow them to have those emotions in the first place. Well-meaning attempts to help children avoid negative feelings will likely have the effect of ensuring that they don’t learn the important skills of emotional regulation. Bypassing acknowledgement of and curiosity about feelings to jump immediately to problem solving telegraphs to our child that his initial panic and distress were warranted, and that emotional distress ought to be avoided at all costs.
Michelle* is a mother in my practice with a thirteen-year-old daughter. Michelle grew up in an alcoholic home, where chaos and destructive rage were the norm, and where her needs were ignored. An attentive and loving parent, Michelle has always been determined that Tessa’s upbringing would be different. Though this is a laudable goal, it has at times led to her having great difficulty tolerating any discomfort or strong negative feelings in her daughter. Recently, Tessa flew into a rage after her mother demanded that she pick up the mess in her room before going out with friends. Michelle was panicked by the intensity of her young teen’s reaction.
As Michelle and I discussed the incident, it became clear that she was afraid of her daughter’s extreme emotional reaction and wanted to find any way possible to avoid a repeat of such a scene. When I asked her what she was so afraid of, she admitted she worried that Tessa would hurt herself, although she conceded that this was very unlikely. As we explored together, she came to see that the fear of rage that she experienced due to her own chaotic upbringing was getting in the way of tolerating her daughter’s strong reactions. When she was able to bear her daughter’s anger without over-reacting, she could help Tessa feel less overwhelmed by her feelings. Then the work of reappraisal and problem solving could begin.
When we see our teens stumble and fall, we would do well to remember the lessons from the toddler years. By signaling to them that their intense emotions are indeed not an emergency, we communicate our belief that they can manage their feelings. We encourage them to see themselves as competent and resilient, and instill in them something like courage.
*Names and all identifying details have been changed.