The Power of Feeling Feelings

Photo Credit: Gianna Trewavas


There is untapped and tremendous power of feeling feelings with observational awareness, meaning observing the feeling as if you are a scientist watching an animal, and then "feeling the feeling" as energy in the body (namely the belly) with your attention.

However, it is clear that the enduring coping mechanisms of suppressing, ignoring, and venting are not the answer for lasting change, in children or adults. The only real answer for transformation and rewiring in the brain, is awareness.

Linda Graham explains further about how we process social- emotional information as toddlers:

"Any emotional-relational-social experiences that are processed before the brain structures that can process experience consciously are fully mature, before 2 ½ -3 years of age, those experiences are stored only in implicit memory, only outside of awareness. This includes ALL early patterns of attachment. The research has proven “beyond irrefutability” that attachment patterns stabilize in our neural circuitry by 12-18 months of age. They are stable and unconscious before we have any conscious choice in the matter and unless new experiences change them, will remain stable “rules” of relating well into adulthood. Unfortunately, for purposes of attachment, Cozolino suggests that because the amygdala is the structure of both our social emotional processing and is our fear center, the negotiation of relationships and the modulation of fear so overlap, our earliest relating, our earliest implicit experience of self can have a bias toward the negative...With explicit processing, conscious processing, we begin to remember our experiences, including relational experiences from 2 1/2 – 3 years of age on. So, the temporal lobe of the cortex is where memories of attachment experiences are stored, consciously and unconsciously; it’s where they get stuck, and when brought to consciousness, where they can change."

What this means is that until we become fully aware of our thoughts and feelings through observation, we cannot change on a deep inner level. This is the same for 2 year old as it is for 52 year olds. This also means that everything the parent is feeling, consciously and unconsciously is being transmitted to the child. Linda Graham explains, "If the parenting style of the parent becomes Disorganized: if the parent, even temporarily, is fragmented, disorganized, dissociated; or is frightening, bizarre, abusive, traumatizing to the child –Then the attachment style of the child can become Disorganized: the child can become, even temporarily, helpless, paralyzed, fragmented, chaotic dissociated; they cannot focus; they cannot soothe."

Neurobiologist Dr. Dan J. Siegel explains about emotions in children in terms of upstairs and downstairs brain, “One reason big feelings can be so uncomfortable for small children is that they don’t view those emotions as temporary. When your three-year-old erupts in anger because there are no orange Popsicles left in the freezer, his downstairs brain, including the brain stem and amygdala, has sprung into action and latched the baby gate. This primitive part of his brain has received an intense surge of energy, leaving him literally unable to act calmly and reasonably. Massive brain resources have rushed to his downstairs brain, leaving little to power his upstairs brain. As a result, no matter how many times you tell him that you have plenty of purple Popsicles (which he liked better than orange last time anyway), he’s probably not going to listen to reason in this moment A parent who recognizes an upstairs tantrum is left with one clear response: never negotiate with a terrorist. "

In regards to parents and awareness of their feelings Dr. Dan says this:

“By shining the light of awareness on difficult moments from your past, you can gain insight into how your past is impacting your relationship with your children. You can remain watchful for how your issues are affecting your own mood as well as how your kids feel. When you feel incompetent, frustrated, or overly reactive, you can look at what's behind those feelings​...When you do that, you can be free to be the kind of parent you want to be. You can make sense of your own life, which will help your kids do the same with theirs.”

According to a PBS Parents expert, Claire Lerner, L.C.S shares this about helping toddlers (and truly older children for that matter) to understand their feelings:

Don’t fear the feelings. Feelings are not the problem. It’s what we do—or don’t do—with them that can be problematic. Listen openly and calmly when your child shares difficult feelings. When you ask about and acknowledge feelings, you are sending the important message that feelings are valued and important.

Avoid minimizing or talking children out of their feelings. This is a natural reaction—we just want to make the bad feelings go away. “Don’t be sad. You’ll see Joey another day.” But feelings don’t go away... Acknowledging a child’s strong feelings opens the door to helping her learn how to cope with them.

Be sure to see our handout WHY WE FACE & ERASE to illustrate the typical responses most of us have to our feelings, and the feelings our children have, what the pitfalls are, and how awareness, and "facing & erasing" is a definitive answer for change. Always remember that with practice, patience, and persistence, facing and erasing is possible.

REFERENCES: Daniel J. Siegel (clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA) The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive, The Neuroscience of Attachment by Linda Graham, MFT, Helping Toddlers Understand Their Emotions y Claire Lerner, L.C.S

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