The messages are good and confusing and start from a surprisingly young age.
“You’ll be fine”
“Don’t be such a drama queen”
Our culture is not known for its tolerance of emotion. After all, emotions can be loud. Emotions can be messy, and emotions can be challenging. Look no further than your neighborhood park to observe the overt discomfort parents’ display in response to a small child’s feelings. If you are a young female, odds are, you are caught up in this crossfire of contradictory messages in more ways than one.
Why the focus on girls? Because, statistics. We have reason for concern that the chronic avoidance and minimization of feelings is of particular detriment to our girls as research has long indicated that girls are significantly more likely to develop an anxiety disorder and have rates of depression in adolescence that are two times greater than males. They also struggle with a myriad of complex dynamics in their social development.
Rachel Simmons, author of the bestselling book ‘The Curse of the Good Girl” writes,
“We have long assumed that just because girls have lots of emotions, they must be good at managing them. If we allow myths about their emotional aptitudes to influence parenting and teaching, we overlook a gaping hole in girls’ development.”
Gaping hole indeed. We continue to observe girls struggling to identify, accept, and properly cope with challenging emotions, and in fact, many times actually see them ignoring, minimizing, and devaluing their feelings.
Emotional intelligence, or the ability to understand and manage our emotions, is a strong predictor of future success and well-being. It’s time to start laying the groundwork for our girls’ emotional competence.
There are no bad feelings
There is perhaps nothing more universal among humans than emotion. Our feelings are a part of us, and to shut ourselves off from certain emotions is to shut off a part of ourselves, creating a dangerous recipe for stuffing (or internalizing) our feelings.
Yet from a young age, girls learn that complicated feelings such as anger and jealousy seem to be off limits and looked at as negative by adults. This leads to patterns of denying and avoiding our emotions, which is a slippery slope for our girls toward anxiety and depression.
Parents can turn the tides of this pattern by affirming that all feelings are normal and helping their girls gain mastery in the language of emotions. When our daughters are given the language to identify all their feelings, they are given the power to understand and manage their complicated inner lives. We know that when we verbally acknowledge an emotion we’re experiencing, it actually sets off a series of neurotransmitters which act as a calming agent to the nervous system.
Parents have a massive amount of influence when it comes to teaching acceptance and identification of emotions.
- Stay calm when your child is in the midst of an emotional storm, you are the lifeline they desperately need to get back to shore.
- Remain present throughout their outburst, demonstrating to them that you are there to support them with intense emotions.
- Use books and visuals to help identify and label emotions accurately. Doing so helps girls to develop a wide emotional vocabulary to express themselves with.
- Point out how a powerful feeling is manifesting physically or behaviorally. This helps to cultivate emotional self-awareness, “your eyebrows look so mad!” “Your fists and muscles are very tight!” “you don’t want to clean up when you’re angry!”
Emotions come and go
If we were asked to list out our go-to coping strategies when stressed or overwhelmed, the list might range from binge eating our child’s stale Halloween candy all the way to yoga and meditation. The more we know ourselves and how we function under stress – including tendencies, both positive and negative to manage it – the better we can learn to take care of ourselves.
Starting from young ages, girls can learn to tolerate a wide range of emotions by using beneficial coping strategies to help them ride out the wave of overwhelming feelings. We know from research that when girls are able to problem solve and access an arsenal of healthy coping tools, they are less likely to engage in unhealthy means of coping: i.e. food, self-harm, drugs to name just a few.
The list of coping and calming techniques is endless and is only limited by what soothes and comforts your daughter’s body, mind, and senses.
- Listening to music on headphones
- Journaling via art in a sketchbook
- Calming scents
- Soft blankets or stuffed animals
- Stress balls, figets or putty
- Warm bath, warm drinks, heating pad
- Quiet time
Providing the space, materials, and encouragement to your daughter in an effort to help her learn what grounds her while she is young will serve her emotional well-being for life.
Hands down, the most powerful lessons our daughters will learn about coping with their emotions will come from watching the adults in their lives. If parents aim to model healthy coping strategies for their daughters, they must come to terms with their own beliefs and personal narratives around girls and the expression of strong emotions.
Spending time reflecting on the following questions can help to bring subconscious patterns to light:
- Was open expression of emotion tolerated from females around me when I was young?
- How were expressions of anger or sadness met in my family?
- Am I unintentionally passing on unhealthy messages about emotion?
- Am I modeling the coping skills I aim to teach my daughter?
The best thing a parent can do to enrich their daughter’s emotional experience is to practice empathy with them. When we aim to understand and share in her feelings, we demonstrate that her feelings are valid, and thus that she as a person is valid.
Help a girl accept her emotions, help her accept herself.