“She’s so advanced! I can’t believe she’s walking already!”
“I’m telling you - he’s got such a sense of humor! What a kibitzer!”
We’re all inclined to believe our children are particularly special, and they are - only not in the ways we tend to think. Many of us struggle to embrace the possibility that our children are anything but perfect, which is why it comes as such a shock and disappointment when they act out. As I recently told a parent, your child will continue to do stupid 6th grade things until he finishes the 6th grade.
As the reality of our children’s limitations set in, we send them to tutors, remedial math programs, sports trainers, and get them evaluated by the DOE to catch them back up and allow them to realize their full potential of being spectacular.
We are always on the lookout for stepping stones to help propel our children forward and provide them an edge over the competition. We encourage learning to cook, playing an instrument, sports, painting, drawing, reading, crocheting, or anything that will stimulate their minds further than “Temple Run” or “Fortnite.” We encourage exercise, the outdoors, and of course Torah learning. All of these things are undeniably important, and as always, “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam.”
But one area that is rarely a focus is emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict. Children, like adults, are often lacking these skills, and struggle to use emotions to relieve stress, communicate, empathize, etc. Due to their cognitive limitations, therapy is structured much differently for kids.
There have been many strides taken in the last century with children in therapy, dating as far back as Freud in 1909 and his work with “Little Hans.” This is the earliest documented use of play in therapy.
In the 1970s, Dr. Sheila Eyberg developed Parent-Child Interaction Therapy. As its name suggests, Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, or PCIT, creates change in a child’s behavior by focusing on the interactions between parent and child. Besides the fact that PCIT is evidence-based, which means its efficacy has been studied in scientific studies and the data shows that it is effective, it is also intuitive. Whether or not we have made mistakes in our parenting, targeted improvement in parent-child interactions will always create positive change in a child’s behavior.
PCIT has been revolutionary in therapy with children because it uses the parents as the primary vehicle of change for children. It is common knowledge that parents have the greatest impact on their children. For better or for worse, we can be our children’s most valuable assets, or their most difficult antagonists.
The same is true with regard to teaching emotional intelligence. We have more power than any therapist or teacher to educate and model emotional awareness for our own children.
We must, however, be in touch with our own limitations. Many adults struggle to use their emotions effectively, and therefore must turn to professionals or literature to become educated in effective parenting techniques and how to model emotional intelligence.
There is one massively important lesson that I find parents struggle to teach their children. It is a crucial concept that tends to evade not only children, but adults as well. Since the lesson is so rare, I consider it a superpower - one that if correctly bestowed upon a child, can provide them a shortcut to self-compassion and acceptance, help them navigate the horrors of grief, struggle, and sickness, and allow them to lead non-judgmental, well-adjusted lives. This superpower is the understanding that humans can have multiple, contradictory feelings, all at the same time. We can feel any combination of happy, sad, confused, overwhelmed, devastated, anxious, confident, love, hate, compassion, anger, etc. There is no rule that emotions have to take turns.
This notion is well-represented in the concept of dialectics in the well-known therapy modality DBT. In DBT, the therapist helps the client accept contradictions such as: “I’m trying my best, and I need to do better.” “I deserve to be proud of myself, and also want change.” We waste countless calories of emotional energy wrestling between “I’m doing a great job considering my circumstance” and “If I wasn’t such a pathetic loser, I’d have turned my life around by now.” Not only is this battle ineffective, it is based on a falsehood. There is no need for a decision. The wrestling match between contradicting feelings is unnecessary. They’re both true! They’re all true! And that’s okay! It’s normal! I’d even venture to say that not having the capacity for multiple, contradictory feelings at the same time would indicate emotional simplicity.
Children are sponges. They have a far greater capacity for learning than adults, and the prime time for them to learn about holding multiple feelings at once is in their youth. But we teach them the opposite. When they cry, we distract them with reasons they should be happy. We teach them to run away from sadness and pain. We not only teach them not to accept their negative feelings, but we send the message that their positive feelings should occupy all of their emotional brain space, leaving no room for tears. “No, no, no, don’t cry! Look, I’m making a funny face!” “Why can’t you appreciate all I do for you rather than complain all the time!” We ourselves are confused and often believe that these sentences make sense, but I don’t believe they are true. I can appreciate you and still feel like complaining (a lesson many would benefit from learning before getting married). I can laugh at your funny face and my sadness may still remain.
Yes, there is room for “cheering someone up.” Yes, it is fair to ask to be appreciated rather than complained to. But do we ever find times to counteract this implicit, accidentally reinforced, mistaken perspective? Do we ever find opportunities to share with our children, “Mommy is feeling so happy for you that you’re playing tackle football with your friends, and is also feeling worried for you that you will hurt yourself. Isn’t it cool how Mommy can feel both of those things at the same time? I feel happy for you and worried!”
This lesson is priceless. Point out to your children when you are feeling multiple things at once. Help them learn about emotions by modelling for them. Help them find unique ways to hold their emotions comfortably. Allow them to feel pain and sadness. Don’t distract them with happy things; rather, marvel at the pain and suffering with them, while also marveling at the fact that the pain is not all-encompassing. Show them how many things they can feel at once. Teach them to notice, to think, to be aware. Who knows - perhaps we still have time to grow up with superpowers ourselves.