Printed on June 19, 2018 at HKFP
As the world mourns with an outpouring of emotions the loss of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, it feels as if it was only yesterday that we lost another equally beloved public figure, Robin William. To the scythe of suicide. It’s a bit surreal when just earlier in the week the world woke up to the loss of yet another household name: designer Kate Spade. Again—to the scythe of suicide. With a bewildered heart, one’s mind reels with a mutiny of questions, “Why? How? What happened?”
In the same eventful week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that American suicides have increased by 30% in 17 years. The same study also states that “experts agree that teaching people how to process loss and how to cope with difficult emotions are essential in suicide prevention.”
In the wake of the rise of suicides in Hong Kong children and teens, much has been said about how tiger and helicopter parenting can be stressing children out and interfering with children’s ability to cope with life’s challenges.Much has also been written about how escalating academic pressure and dwindling play time are harming our kids. But there seems to a lacuna of information on how to assist parents in helping kids cope with difficult emotions—so that our kids don’t grow up to see suicide as the only way out of the relentless grip of emotional pain, the dark, bottomless pit of hopelessness that drowns one’s soul in vast desolation.
Psychologists worldwide have been advocating for the importance of a positive and nurturing parent-child relationship. Developmental psychologists use the term “attachment” to describe how a child’s secure relationship with his parents promotes positive life outcomes for the child. Central to the idea of attachment is the parent’s emotional responsiveness to a child’s distress signals. As a world renowned psychologist Dr. Laura Markham advices: we limit behavior (e.g., no hitting), but we don’t limit emotional expressions. The idea is that we encourage a child to use words to express their big feelings—regardless of how distressful, upsetting, hurtful, or explosive those feelings are—so that kids don’t have to act them out as the last and only resort.
This piece of advice might be counter-intuitive to many parents. Because of a deeply ingrained parental instinct to protect, when we see our kids being sad, upset, or hurt; many parents charge full speed ahead into a helmet-and-knee-pad mode. Out of a fierce love for our kids and a utopian desire to see them live in the safe haven of uninterrupted happiness and joy, parents might unwittingly curb their kids’ healthy expressions of whopping emotions. From the bottom of their blessed hearts, parents wish to bring relief to their little people in distress by delivering sincere counsel: “Don’t cry. There is no need to cry.” Or, “Don’t feel sad. We will buy you a new iPad right now.” In certain highly emotional-charged situations, kids are even put in a time-out when they are overcome by big angry feelings, as parents operate under the assumption that clamping down those angry feelings as quickly as possible is a good thing.
The reality is, when kids are not given a space to safely experience, express, and process their big emotions, those feelings go unacknowledged and underground. As Sigmund Freud observed, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” We don’t want those “uglier ways.”
Another unwelcome consequence is that when parents try to shield their kids from bad feelings, the immensely valuable learning opportunities to acquire the life skills to cope with emotional distress are taken away from these kids. When they lack the here-and-now experience of being soothed and held by a caring adult in the midst of, say, a meltdown, it will be difficult for these little people to develop the ability to self-sooth when they get older.
Very different from shutting down their emotions (which typically starts with a “Don’t feel…”), an example of a here-and-now holding experience to help our kids process their emotions sounds something like this: “Aww, that’s awful! You must feel really bummed about not being picked for the soccer team, when your best friend Johnny got in. I can see how sad you feel about it. Tell mummy about how you are feeling right now.” When our kids feel heard and understood by us, they will have an easier time moving through their sadness and recovering from it. We can’t shield them from sad experiences forever, but we can equip them with the invaluable skills to cope with sadness so that sadness won’t defeat or consume them further down the road.
A third unwelcome consequence to shutting down kids’ expressions of big feelings is that some kids might inadvertently infer an unintended message, a message that says they are a bad person for having bad feelings, or that it is wrong to have bad feelings. These unintended messages will take a toll on our kids’ emotional health if left uncorrected.
Because of the worsening mental health trends in Hong Kong, parents often feel frustrated about being put in the impossible situation of having to choose between an academic path and a well-being path. Some parents might feel that they put their children’s future at risk should they deviate from a razor-sharp focus on grades. But mental health is not a choice. Between mental health and good grades—it is not a matter of choice.
Your positive relationship with your child will carry your child further in life than any report card.