Five Ways Caregivers Mishandle Emotions

Sometimes we make the subject of emotions, and emotions themselves, more complicated than they actually are. Emotions and our experience of them are complex, but when it comes down to it, they’re fairly straightforward.  

What complicates emotions is when we don’t have language for them, when we have spent a lifetime stuffing them down, and when we have no idea which ones we’re experiencing. This all comes from our experiences in our families of origin.      

In some families, denial or dismissal of emotions is overt. Your parents may have said things like, “You really shouldn’t be angry about this” or “Stop crying.” But in many unhealthy families, the mishandling of emotions is more subtle. There are many ways this happens, but here are some common examples:

  1. Parents don’t give language to emotions. 

Part of a parent’s job is to help children recognize and name their emotions. In the early stages of development, children don’t have language for what they’re feeling. Therefore, it’s up to their primary caregivers to assist with this by connecting with the child. In the words of Daniel Hughes, a leading attachment-based parenting expert, “The parent is attuned to the child’s subjective experience, makes sense of those experiences, and communicates them back to the child.”*

Note that Hughes says that the parent is attuned to the child’s experience. Not their own experience—not what they think their child should or shouldn’t feel. The parent must know their child, connecting with them in a way that gives them a felt sense of the child’s experience.

  1. A parent is boundaryless with their emotions, so there’s no room for anyone else’s.

In some households, one or both parents don’t have boundaries with their emotions, and the and the energy of those emotions spills over onto everyone. It could be something overt like rage or something less apparent like depression. In any case, the caregiver doesn’t deal with their emotions appropriately. When this happens, the parent’s emotional energy takes up all of the space in the household, leaving no room for anyone else’s feelings.

  1. Emotions are invalidated.

In this case, the child is made to believe their feelings don’t matter. Their emotional reality is dismissed or minimized by way of comments like “It’s not a big deal” or “You have nothing to cry about.” This is similar to situations in which the child is told how they should feel. “Calm down, there’s no reason to get so excited,” “You shouldn’t feel hurt, Mom didn’t mean what she said,” “Don’t cry, it’ll be ok, you’re fine.”

Invalidation could also mean having your feelings totally ignored—you’re sad, angry, joyful, but no one acknowledges it. Or it could have come in the form of overt shaming. Maybe you were teased for crying or told there was something wrong with you for feeling a certain way.

     4. There’s no support or comfort to handle emotions.

Children need their caregivers to provide a safe context to feel big emotions—whether that’s joy and excitement or deep sadness. They need comfort and support. They need to feel heard and understood. Children have a need to, as Daniel Siegel says, “feel felt” by their caregivers.

  1. The child feels responsible for a parent’s emotions.

This last one is big but sometimes goes unrecognized, even though, in my experience, it’s fairly common. Children are given the message that they are responsible for a parent’s emotional state or well-being. That’s not true—a child actually can’t cause a parent to feel a certain way. Parents are adults responsible for their own emotional experiences. 

But children don’t know that. Our parents give us the sense that we do have the power to make them feel a certain way, so we believe it’s true. We naturally trust our caregivers. For example: 

  • A child is told that it’s their fault that dad got so angry and hit mom.
  • A child is told he made mom sad when he didn’t give her a hug.
  • A child feels like she’s the only one that can brighten dad’s day when he’s down.
  • A child is able to read mom’s mood when she gets home from work and can keep her from getting angry by being “good.”

There are many variations and nuances for each of these, but I hope this list will help you start thinking about your own family of origin emotional experiences, and if any of this resonates with you, I encourage you to share your thoughts with a trusted person in your life.

Peace on the journey,