How I Had to “Break Out” to Become a Better Parent

I am not the most emotionally expressive person in the world. Truth be told, I’m a little overwhelmed when people become very emotionally expressive. I would much rather quietly, and privately, experience emotions. My mother recalls my two-year-old self opening Christmas gifts one at a time, calmly setting each down to open the next, with very little emotional expression. My wife smiles at me sometimes because my big display of emotion consists of, “That’s cool.” I think I’ve gotten better, but….

I learned to make some adjustments to my emotional expression in response to my children. My wife and I have two beautiful daughters. Early in their lives they taught me that any emotion they experienced was to be recognized by all, including me. When they were angry, everyone knew. When they were sad, it was heartbreaking. When they were excited, the whole room vibrated with their joy. Don’t get me wrong. They are very appropriate in their emotional expression, but they did express their emotion…and I didn’t. Their emotional expression could easily overwhelm me.  And when I get overwhelmed by emotion, I shut down. John Gottman describes it as “emotional flooding” and I was drowning.

None of this is necessarily bad. They were not wrong. Nor was I. We just have different personalities. But I wanted to connect with my daughters. I wanted to “rejoice when they rejoiced” and “weep when they wept.” I wanted to connect with them and draw closer to them through their emotional experiences. My first instinct, however, was to calm it all down. “That’s exciting; but calm down a little.” “It’s not that bad. Don’t worry about it.” “Quit crying. It’s just a game.”  Anything to reduce the intensity of the emotion. And that just frustrated them and made them more emotional.

In fact, trying to “tame” another person’s emotions devalues their experience, their emotion, and their person.  It can also reinforces gender stereotypes of the non-emotional male. It sends the message that emotions are stronger than the person. It offers no support. It puts up a wall of “your-emotions-don’t-matter” and “I’m-not-strong-enough-to-handle-your-emotions” that separates the one expressing emotion from the one trying to calm the emotion. By proxy, it sends the message “I’m not strong enough to handle your emotions…or you. If can’t hand your emotion, I can’t protect you…or help you.”

To help my daughters grow and to develop a better relationship with them, I had to learn to rejoice with them and weep with them. I had to “break out” of my little emotional box to experience their emotion with them, to empathize with their emotion and so let them know emotions are normal. I had to “break out” of my comfort zone to share their emotion and let them know I value them enough to enter their world of joys, sorrows, celebrations, and fears. I had to “break out” of my fear to validate their emotions as valuable sources of information. I had to “break out” of my tendency to shut down to let them know that we, as people, are in control of our emotions. Our emotions are not in control of us.

My children taught me a lot about myself in this process. And, I had to “break out” and grow. (Parenting will do that to you.) I’m still not what people call “emotive.” Probably never will be. But, for my children’s sake, I had to “break out” of my comfort zone to connect with them and grow with them. Believe me, it was well worth the effort. I’ve learned to share in their emotions in our own way…and draw closer together in the process.

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