When a child experiences strong emotions, she can feel them manifesting in her body as physical aches, pains, illnesses or discomfort, just as we adults do. Below are some typical physical responses to strong negative emotions reported by children:
- Tense muscles, clenched jaw, pounding head and rapid breathing when angry
- Sweating, trembling and shallow breathing when frightened or nervous
- Throat pain, nausea, or stomach problems when sad or disappointed
These are just a few examples of how emotions manifest in the physical realm. Research has shown a definite connection between some serious health conditions and a prolonged inability to express certain negative feelings. In some circles these are likened to an implosion, where the unexpressed negative feelings cause an internal explosion, resulting in outward health difficulties like strokes, heart attacks, high blood pressure, etc.
How a Young Child Deals with Emotions
A very young child often does not have the gift of language. Even an older child is sometimes not very articulate and therefore unable to verbalise his feelings. At such times, he may resort to the following ways of handling his intense feelings:
- Crying, screaming or acting-out behaviours
- Withdrawal, sulking and isolation
- Binge eating
- Temper tantrums
As adults, if we focus only on the outward behaviours and force the child to fall in line with our expectations, we might end up depriving him of an opportunity to express his emotions. That is not to say we must tolerate misbehaviour. Rather, as adults, if we would look at these unacceptable behaviours as symptoms of a deeper underlying emotional need, we might be in a better position to facilitate healthier ways of expression, thereby alleviating his distress without having to deal with difficult behaviours.
Why Expressing Emotions is Good
Unexpressed negative emotions tend to remain pent-up inside a child’s mind, thereby making her highly wound-up and irritable. Over time, this irritability becomes a part of her personality, and eventually escalates to frustration and anger. Again, as she keeps it locked inside, the anger in her system keeps building up pressure inside her body slowly, but surely. When a child is angry, her body releases adrenaline, which remains in her system constantly, thereby disturbing the balance of chemicals in her bloodstream. In the long run, chemicals like Acetylcholine, which is associated with anger, weakens the heart and causes health concerns.
In the same way, when a child is anxious all the time, he is on hyper-alert mode, which causes a spike in the stress hormone cortisol in his body. Elevated cortisol over the long term consistently produces glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels.
When a child learns to express her feelings of anger, frustration, anxiety, sadness etc., there is relief from the pressure, and the balance of body and brain chemicals is restored. When certain creative mediums of expression are employed, there is a definite shift in brain chemistry. For example, neuroscientists have discovered that when children engage in metaphorical play (or pretend play using symbols), certain parts of the brain light up, and there is a surge of feel-good hormones called endorphins in the body. Researchers have concluded that neurons that fire together wire together. Over time, this leads to a healthier pattern of thinking, feeling and behaving, which in turn leads to good physical health and well-being.
How you can Facilitate the Expression of Emotions
As stated above, there is definitive research that links play to well-being. Play is the most powerful self-guided self-healing mechanism available to mankind. It works even for adults. When you play with your child, you are not only providing him an opportunity to be healthier, but you are also allowing those benefits to accrue to yourself as well.
Spend a few minutes every day talking to your child about feelings. Share your own feelings using words, and encourage her to share hers. Use simple and direct language, such as “I feel sad today because I saw a puppy being beaten.” Ensure that you always begin your statements using “I feel…” Encourage her to do the same. Over time, with daily practice, verbalizing emotions will become habitual and easier.
It is very important to reflect your child’s expressed feelings. The simplest way to do this is to paraphrase what he says. For example, if your child is raving and ranting about something his friend did, you can reflect his feelings back to him by saying something along the lines of, “I can see that you are very angry.” Again, it helps to keep it short and simple, in order to keep the lines of communication open and non-threatening.
In conclusion, it is essential for us, as adults and parents, to develop a certain degree of emotional intelligence ourselves. Only then will we be able to encourage our children to express their emotions freely and honestly.
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