The key to happiness lies in managing emotions well. While it is an important life skill, parents rarely teach their child how to do it. ParentCircle spoke to Dr Ravi Samuel, a leading psychotherapist from Chennai, about how parents should help their child manage her emotions, as well as how to manage their own emotions. Here are excerpts from the interview.
PC: Do you think emotional issues such as excessive anger, inability to cope with disappointment, and depression in children are a modern-day phenomenon? Didn’t they have such problems in the past?
Dr RS: Things like depression, frustration or anger are not a new phenomenon at all. Children have always experienced it. But, earlier, the coping mechanisms were different. As the mother and grandparents used to be at home, there were avenues for guidance and support. For example, if the mother hit the child, he would take refuge with his grandparents, who would pamper him and make him feel normal.
But, nowadays, that doesn’t happen. Towards the end of the day, parents are very tired and don’t have much emotional energy to deal with the child’s issues. So, when a child who is disappointed, angry or frustrated, tries to share his feelings with his parents, they deal with it superficially. This leads to a lot of frustration, which results in anger. Also, certain activities like playing violent video games, watching movies which show aggression, or WWF, nurture aggression. Children later bring it out in real-life situations because they assume aggression to be a kind of heroism and indulge in violent behaviour.
PC: Are there any specific reasons for children finding it difficult to manage their emotions today?
Dr RS: The emotions of a child depend on how he or she is being brought up. For example, in some families, when a child refuses to have food, family members try to feed her by pampering her; or, when the child says she doesn’t want a particular food item, family members serve her the food of her choice. Sometimes, the child would purposefully refuse to eat, irrespective of what is given, just to seek attention. She may say that she wants something else, a demand which parents would cater to. Through all this, the child learns that if she throws a tantrum, parents would back off and she will be excused from her responsibility. But, once such a child starts going to school, where she would be expected to do a lot of things independently, which she is not used to, it would lead to disappointments and frustrations.
So, a lot of things depend not on the child but on the parents and the circumstances in which a child is being brought up.
PC: In what ways can improper emotional management adversely affect a child’s present and future?
Dr RS: When a child shows emotional vulnerability towards certain individuals or behaviours, parents try to protect him. That is why I advise against parents being overprotective. They need to expose the child to various circumstances and individuals, some of whom may be rude, some caring, and some indifferent. By protecting the child, parents prevent him from growing and maturing.
A lot depends on how parents guide their child to channelise his emotions, face disappointments and frustrations. The child has to be taught how to deal with frustration. For example, in the past, when children used to play together, one would lose and the other would win. However, the child who lost knew that the next day he might win. So, there was no great emotional reaction to losing or winning. But, nowadays, children mostly play on computers and the moment they begin to lose, they switch it off or reboot it, so as to not face the embarrassment of loss. A child who insulates himself from reality will face a lot of problems when reality dawns on him. And parents would have no clue about how to manage their child’s emotional reactions once he grows up. So, it is very important that the child is given due exposure.
PC: Can lack of proper emotional management lead to physical or mental health issues? How?
Dr RS: All of us experience a certain degree of anxiety. For example, when a child has to go to school after holidays, she feels a little anxious, but would still go because parents compel her. But, there are children who suffer from an overwhelming sense of anxiety, and would develop a severe stomach ache or headache. So, emotions and body are very closely linked. Many a time, children’s ailments are more psychosomatic than physical.
Similarly, if a child has not studied well for exams, his confidence level would be very low. On the eve of exams, he may develop severe or unmanageable anxiety. So, emotions can affect both your physical and mental health.
PC: Do you think that unrealistic expectations and undue pressure from parents can be one major causal factor for emotional problems in children? If so, what are your tips for parents regarding this?
Dr RS: Yes, very much. I see a lot of children from professional colleges, who didn’t want to study medicine or engineering, but are studying it because their parents asked them to. There is something called aptitude and something called intelligence. Not all children have academic intelligence. They may have creative intelligence and can do extremely well in creative fields like designing or architecture. So, first of all, parents need to understand their child’s intelligence. Second, they need to know what the child wants to be. A child who is academically brilliant may not necessarily want to be a doctor but may want to be a journalist. That is something parents should accept and appreciate. When the child is forced against her aptitude, she may experience a lot of frustrations, which can, sometimes, even lead to the child committing suicide. Next, it is very important that parents have realistic expectations. Not all children can be toppers. Parents should know what the child is capable of and motivate her to do better. Many children lose interest in studies because when they are not able to meet parental expectations, they experience an enormous amount of negativity. So, for the well-being of their children, parents should be very careful about what they expect from their children.
PC: What tips would you give parents to come up with realistic expectations?
Dr RS: First, parents should understand their child instead of imposing their preferences. So, forget about your preferences and focus on the child’s capabilities. Second, instead of advising the child to study, which most children don’t even listen to, participate in his learning process. Ask him to study and recite to you or write and show it you. There is a lot of information on the Internet and there are many aids at home that parents can use to make learning an interesting experience for the child. Third, don’t centre everything around studies. For example, when the child wants to watch a movie, parents may chide him saying, “Why don’t you show the same interest in studies?” Don’t criticise your child and do not centre your communication around his weaknesses.
PC: What role should parents play in helping their children handle negative emotions. How can they go about it?
Dr RS: Do not overprotect the child and do not protect her from having negative experiences. When a child is insulated from negativity, she would not know how to handle it and will succumb when she has to face it. That is why, today, we see a lot of youngsters attempting suicide for even trivial reasons, like being reprimanded by the teacher or not scoring good marks and so on.
Parents need to focus on overall personality growth of their child. In many families, the child is just expected to study and do nothing else like cooking or housekeeping or shopping. Also, we have certain gender priorities. We think girls should cook and boys should take it easy, which is wrong. It is very important to allow our children to handle responsibilities like making sure the doors are locked at night, manage certain expenses, go shopping to buy vegetables, so that they can interact with outsiders.
PC: In your opinion, what kind of relationship should a parent and child have for the child to lead a healthy emotional life?
Dr RS: Many parents make the mistake of thinking that they should treat their child like a friend. A friend is non-judgmental and offers unconditional acceptance, which parents can’t model. Parents, on the other hand need to do a lot of things like course corrections, improvisations, or voicing disapproval. So, the role of a parent is very important and tricky.
There have been times when parents have told me that they have been constantly advising the child. And, when I asked the child, he would say that he didn’t even listen to what they said. So, instead of giving lengthy lectures, participate in your child’s activities, expose him to various circumstances, support him when he is going through difficult times and do not prevent him from facing difficult times.
Also allow the child to verbalise his emotions and problems. Many children, especially girls, keep things to themselves. This is because they are scared of parental reactions. So, it is very important that parents encourage their child to talk openly, and share their own thoughts and feelings when correcting their child.
Dr Ravi Samuel is one of Chennai's eminent psychotherapists who offers mental health therapy through his URClinic.
Hope you liked this article. To get expert tips and read interesting articles on a wide variety of parenting topics, subscribe now to our magazine.