We have passed the half-way point in this term’s Child-Parent Relationship Therapy course. Our group of parents has been learning to spend half an hour every week in ‘special play time’, following their children’s lead and commenting on what they see.
A lot of our focus has been on reflecting the feelings which children express through and around their play.
For some parents, this can be extremely challenging – the children’s feelings are too similar to, or too different from, their own, are feelings which they themselves have been taught to suppress, or they worry that by labelling the feelings they observe they are taking too much control over their children’s emotional lives. As parents practice this skill, however, they are able to step inside their children’s world, with powerful results.
When children see their feelings reflected back to them by a trusted adult – verbally or non-verbally – they experience those feelings with less intensity. Terrifying, overwhelming emotions become tolerable and manageable. Their brains physically change, enabling them to manage similar situations more easily in the future.
Children express themselves through their behaviour and their play, and unwanted behaviours are often part of an attempt to communicate feelings which the child cannot express in any other way. Words give them another means of communication, enabling them to tell their parents, their teachers and their friends what they need, and reducing the need for ‘acting out’.
Improved emotional literacy can also help children to understand and cope with the full range of complex and contradictory emotions. Being comfortable and familiar with emotional language makes it much easier to understand the full range of complex and contradictory human emotions – to recognise when you feel scared and excited at the same time, angry and frustrated with someone you still love, disappointed but also hopeful.
This can be particularly important in adolescence, when complicated feelings often emerge with a new intensity and talking can be a vital way of understanding and dealing with these, coming to terms with the contradictions, identifying solutions and finding their resilience in the midst of turmoil, and finding common ground with peers.
Naming and reflecting feelings allows children to feel understood, cared for, accepted and appreciated. They learn that strong, bad, destructive feelings do not mean that they themselves are bad. They are able to share their excitement, their pride, their joy in discovery and creation, increasing their sense of competence and self esteem. They find new ways to explore and express everything that they feel, enabling them to share and communicate their inner world more fully.