Containing emotions – the key to healthy relationships


Emotions can be contagious, especially those experienced and expressed vividly by our loved ones. When it comes to difficult emotions, like anger, sadness, frustration, anxiety, this infectious nature of them, makes things more challenging. Thinking, making good judgments and decisions can be overridden by two (or more) people caught in the emotional circle.
If the first person, experiencing difficult emotions is a young child, it can be very hard to understand what is going on for her/him, and help accordingly.

The obvious complication is, that young children can’t explain what is going on, they themselves don’t have capacity to understand it. Their bodily reactions and emotional life are much more interdependent, than in adults. For example, bodily discomfort can cause huge emotional distress, and because the baby doesn’t have mechanisms to deal with it other than very dynamic, powerful expression, this in turn causes the discomfort getting worse.

We can distinguish three ways of dealing with child’s difficult emotions. We all use them from time to time, depending on the circumstances and our capacity to work out the situation.

Let’s imagine the child crying inconsolably, being perhaps angry or frustrated. There are three typical responses to how the parent or main carer deals with the child’s distress.

1. Blocking emotions

The mother or the father for various reasons might not be able to connect with this distressful emotional experience, and blocks their child’s emotions off. They might pick up the baby and rock him/her, circulating the room, but at an emotional and psychological level, they are absent and protect themselves from hearing or seeing what’s going on with the child because it’s too painful or too much to deal with at this particular moment.

2. Giving back emotions

The parent ‘takes in’ the child’s emotions, soaking them like a sponge, and gets upset and overwhelmed. She/he gets affected by the child’s emotional experience (gets sad or angry) and throughs back these emotions at the child in a raw and unprocessed way, adding some of his/her own feelings; for example, she gets very angry – and also anxious and guilty of becoming angry in the first place.

In two cases above, thinking gets overpowered by emotional experience and it’s impossible to figure out what is really happening and what actions should be undertaken to help the child.

3. Containing emotions

The mother/father/carer who in the particular situation has strength and ability, connects with the child and helps her/him go though difficult moment, containing the emotional experience. The parent does get affected by child’s emotion – feels and acknowledges them at a deep emotional level and at a thinking level. The containing parent tries to stay calm in the face of difficult situation. They talk to the baby calmly, rock the baby, and think for the baby, what might be the cause of the upset. This means, that they let the emotion go through their system: not trying to desperately get rid of it, but attempting to experience it without anxiety. With this process, the emotion usually fades away, the baby or child calms enough to eat or sleep, but if the baby doesn’t calm the parent knows it’s more serious – perhaps teething or something else – so the process of containment goes on until the problem is sorted out. This containing approach works at three levels – one to sort out the practical issues; two – to create an understanding within the infant of how to manage their own emotions – learning from the parent; three – the parent develops a greater capacity to care and to find their inner strength and peace.

The ability to contain our own emotions, as well as emotions of our children is in my view the most helpful of all parental ‘tools’. In fact it’s a basis for healthy, mature and caring relationships with all people who are important to us.

Writing this piece, I remembered the moment in my life, when I was held and contained by other person. It was just over a year ago when I was giving birth to my second child. The midwife who assisted me through all long process had a wonderful ability to help me dealing with my emotional experience of labour. She was there, as a gentle touch of reality, in these moments when I was loosing clear judgment. She patiently provided every possible comfort when I thought the pain was never going to end. She stayed composed and calm, what allowed her to make right decisions regarding the process (recommending movement, change of the position, listening to the child’s heartbeat, etc.). I felt emotionally connected to her and I believed, that whatever I experience, I’m in a safe place to feel it and I am going to be supported.

I think this is exactly what small baby, who understands very little of what is going on for him/her, needs when going through difficult time.

 

First published on herfamily.ie

Photo from: http://www.brushtouch.wordpress.com

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