Emotions: Suppress, Regulate, or Embody?
Why they’re different, and why it matters for your kid (and you).
You know the scene: you are running late, or you’re in a public space — maybe a store, or a community gathering — or you’re just trying to have a quiet morning at home. All of the sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, your child begins to have a really, really big feeling.
Maybe they’re your 3 year old child and they’re crying, screaming, and resisting any kind of conversation.
Maybe they’re your 8 year old child, and they’re saying, “I hate you!” and physically pushing you away.
Maybe they’re your 13 year old child, and they are facing you down with arms crossed, feet planted, and a face that looks like a quickly gathering storm.
Maybe they’re your 15 year old child, and everything that you’re saying, doing, and even the way you’re breathing — is wrong.
Maybe they’re your 18 year old child and they are still in bed — and they can’t seem to leave it.
Regardless of their age, and how the emotion is showing up — it is big, it is loud, and it is disrupting your moment. The way you will react depends on a handful of factors — how you are feeling right then, your priorities for this specific situation, whether you care about what people around you think and — most acutely — the way your emotions were handled when you were a child. In the situation where you are running late, and you need your child to cooperate — you might already be feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and even disappointed with yourself. When the goal is to get out of the house in a timely manner, it is hard to make space for a child who is having a big feeling.
If you are like most people — when displaying a big emotion at inopportune moment, you were likely told to “stop it!” and made aware of how your big feeling was making your caregiver look. Perhaps you were told that you were being “embarrassing”, “rude”, “disrespectful”, and “disobedient”. Perhaps you might have been told that your very big feeling was too big for your age — even as a three year old. “crying/screaming/pushing isn’t going to solve this problem!” is a phrase I hear often when caregivers are confronted with the big feelings of children.
Most of us were taught to suppress our big emotions for the sake of the situation. Emotional suppression is used to try and make uncomfortable, overwhelming thoughts and feelings more manageable by hiding them. It teaches the child that there are times where there is no space for their emotions, and so they must put them away for later. While suppressing an emotion may allow for the situation to proceed as desired, it teaches the child that they have emotions that are not safe for them to feel.
There is no such thing as a bad or unsafe emotion. There are some emotions that are more challenging than others. We all know that feeling angry with someone can be uncomfortable — it creates physical changes in temperature, breathing, and heart rate. It can trigger nausea, headaches, and tension throughout the body. Anger can disrupt thinking patterns, how one might handle a situation, and when untended- anger can leave the nervous system activated and on high alert for extended periods of time. Feeling sad — whether through grief, disappointment, or another trigger can create physical sensations of heaviness, listlessness — and can evolve into depression and prolonged hopelessness. Cluster emotions — such as jealousy, frustration, and overwhelm — give us the experience of layers of interacting challenging emotions.
In the situation above, the emotional suppression response to all the children is: “you need stop (crying/yelling/saying these things/staying in bed) — it is not going to help you, it is causing a scene, and right now we need to (leave/buy our groceries/just have a calm morning).
While it might get the child to cooperate, the emotion will remain inside them, and now will be attached to a feeling of shame. Mental illness can emerge in children with normal, loving families where big emotions are not recognized, validated, and given space.
So what are the alternatives to emotional suppression?
Emotional regulation has become a go-to for many, especially as schools scramble to include social and emotional wellness into their classrooms. Emotional regulation curriculums, based heavily off of cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy, teach children to categorize emotions into zones, colors, or categories. The child still learns that there are emotional categories that are more preferable to be in. Emotion regulation is the ability to exert control over one’s own emotional state. It may involve behaviors such as rethinking a challenging situation to reduce anger or anxiety, hiding visible signs of sadness or fear, or focusing on reasons to feel happy or calm.
In the situation above, the emotional regulation response to all the children is: “I see that you are angry right now. Let’s try to move into the green zone/the calm category. Can you take a deep breath so we can figure this out?
Emotional embodiment, which is what I have worked to develop and enhance over the last 12 years, is the ability to recognize the physical sensations of emotions, create shared language about those emotions, and incorporate strategies and tools to move through them towards resolution.
Emotional embodiment allows the child to understand that what they are feeling is normal, safe, and valid; to learn how to express what is behind the emotion; and to use strategies to calm the body in order to express their need and reach resolution. When we embody what we are feeling, we don’t need to put it into a category. If I am feeling angry, I am feeling angry — and that’s okay — I am not necessarily in any zone, color, or category that I need to get out of. Emotional embodiment takes practice, it takes the development of embodied emotional language from a young age — and it’s worth it.
The emotional embodiment response to the above situation is: “I notice that you are (crying/using a loud voice/communicating physically/having a hard time getting out of bed). Let’s take three deep breaths together so that we can help calm your body. What is the feeling like in your body right now? Would you like to try and calm your heart rate? I hear you saying that (you are having a hard time putting on your shoes by yourself/are feeling upset about something that happened earlier today/would like to let me know that you disagree with me/are tired) — how can we work together so that we both get what we need right now?
As the caregiver or teacher, emotional embodiment requires the willingness to tap into patience and curiosity. Asking questions about the presenting feeling allows it to have multiple dimensions. Rather than just “you are angry, and it would be good for you to calm down,” emotional embodiment adds nuance to the situation. For most of us grownups, that might require some re-learning of what we have internalized. Once the child develops the language, they can have these conversations within themselves.
How do emotional embodiment and emotional regulation differ? Emotional regulation seeks to correct or redirect the emotion, while emotional embodiment seeks to move through with non-judgement to resolution. The difference is in where our very limited resource of attention goes. In emotional regulation it goes to control and in emotional embodiment it goes to acceptance. Both strategies lead towards a calmer outcome than emotional suppression, and both, honestly, are great for kids to learn. However, I propose that allowing emotions to be an accepted part of our whole-being expression creates more long-term, sustainable emotional equilibrium.
The more we are able to accept who we are — including our full emotional self — the more resilient we become to life’s challenges, disappointments, and traumas. In my experience both as a survivor of trauma and illness, and in my extensive work with children across different communities — acceptance of self is what leads to resilience. As we know, a resilient child is a strong child — and becomes a balanced adult. We can’t control what we inherit — in our genes, and through our upbringing — but we can be part of the solution that breaks the chain. The younger we start, and the more spaces we practice this in — the better.
Imagine — a world where everyone is in tune with their emotions? What a concept!
Want to learn more about emotional embodiment? Would you like to bring a workshop to your school or classroom? Would you like to learn how to use it with your child? — reach out! firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the work at www.yaliszulanski.com