Let’s face it. Who wants to talk about difficult topics, especially when we know the other person is going to get upset. As human beings, we are more likely to avoid things that require effort, that we are not very interested in, or that give rise to negative emotions. The reality is that disagreeing with someone or asking about a sensitive topic is not easy to do.
Children pick up from parents, teachers, and peers what is okay and what is not okay to talk about in a family or classroom. Some of these ‘rules’ are important (you might want to talk to a close friend about something really personal, and not necessarily in front of a group of people you don’t know). Learning the ‘norms’ is part of growing up and doing what works; that is, knowing your audience. Another thing that children pick up on is which emotions are okay to talk about. Many of us like to be around happy people. We want to hear about the fun people had or the funny joke they heard. However, emotions like sadness, anger, and fear — though unpleasant experiences — are also important and contribute to our well-being. They let us know that something might be wrong, and propel us to seek support or to problem-solve a situation.
Sometimes we believe that the goal is not to have those negative emotions either because of what we have learned growing up, or from what the media today is giving us. Who posts pictures of difficult moments on Facebook? Everyone seems to be having a good time! We don’t want to feel sad, angry, or scared, and don’t want others to feel that way either. As adults, we might avoid interactions where one of those emotions comes up. But, by avoiding such conversations, we are teaching children that those emotions are not acceptable — that somehow, they are wrong — and that only thinking positive and feeling happy is acceptable. If a child learns this, they are less likely to seek support when they are feeling upset. They will try to handle it on their own, and if the emotion is too overwhelming, mental health problems can arise.
So, let’s open the conversation about all emotions. As caregivers, it’s important to be aware of what is easy for us to talk about, and what isn’t; which emotions we understand better, and which we need help to process. Let’s pay attention to what we are modeling in schools and families so we can contribute to healthy child development. Let’s notice the positive, and talk about the happy times, but also not avoid talking about the hard times.