How We Train Kids to Misrepresent Their Emotions

How We Train Kids to Misrepresent Their Emotions

We focus so much on training the ability to regulate emotions that we fail to counterbalance this skill with the ability to express emotions.

Her teacher held the oversized envelope tightly against her chest. She grimaced and said “I’m sorry” upon handing me the packet containing my daughter’s first-ever school pictures.

“Retakes are next month,” she continued. Her tone was a warning that disappointment awaited.

“They’re that bad, huh?” I responded, before lifting the flap to peek inside the envelope.

The teacher gave me a half-nod and said, “we tried.”

I assumed my daughter’s eyes were closed or her hair had streaks of finger paint in it. Heck, maybe there was even a booger dangling from her nose. I mean, you can’t really expect toddlers to stay clean and tidy for more than a fraction of a second.

“Geez, her teacher seems really concerned,” I thought, and wondered how a school picture could possibly be THAT awful.

I reluctantly slid one of the photos halfway out of the envelope and whatever concern there had been immediately dissolved.

I laughed. Hard. My heart was overflowing with all the best things at the sight of this image.

“Oh, we won’t be needing retakes,” I said.

Because this is my daughter. The real her. Eyes open and unamused by whatever nonsense was taking place in front of her.

I imagine she was facing a photographer who was trying to coax her into a feigned smile by waving around a floppy stuffed dog, or making bad jokes, or acting like a total goofball in an attempt to gain her favor.

But really, it was probably the baby talk that caused this expression on her face. Because this child has always met baby talk with utter disdain.

Whatever it was, she will not be made a fool of. Such behavior is beneath her.

She saves her smiles for things that speak to her soul. And there are A LOT of them. Just not school picture day.

She doesn’t do phony. But the experience got me thinking about all the the MANY ways we as adults intentionally and unintentionally ask kids to misrepresent their feelings. Granted, sometimes this is an important skill (“Can you puhleeze just give your Aunt a hug and pretend like you remember her?”), but this skill is also a gateway into inauthenticity and, often, a first step toward hiding emotions that need to be expressed in order to be released.

We tell our children not to cry when they’re hurt — and that goes for emotional injuries as well as physical ones; we praise them for being emotionally steady, when really what we are praising is their ability to make our lives easier by hiding emotions; we dismiss feelings as “irrational” or silly; or, instead of talking through situations of fear or uncertainty, we tell our kids not to worry, as if pushing the feeling of worry deep down will extinguish it instead of giving it a dark, fertile place to grow. We ask them to smile for the camera. And later, we ask them to smile and keep smiling even when a smile is the last thing they’re feeling.

We focus so much on training the ability to regulate emotions that we fail to counterbalance this skill with the ability to express emotions. Yes, emotional regulation is important. But so too is emotional expression. Think about it: How many adults do you know who are incapable of expressing their emotions — and what intra- and interpersonal consequences does this inability create?

When your child is fearful or anxious or overly exuberant or sad, lean into the emotion. Explore these emotions with your child and try to model them yourself. Just like your child doesn’t have to be happy all the time, you don’t have to be either. By teaching your child how to express emotions, you normalize them — it’s okay to be fearful; it’s okay to be sad. And it’s okay to feel your feelings even when having your school photo taken.