It seems like our families can’t get away from intense emotional situations, even if things at home are mostly routine. This week we’re bombarded by powerful images of the floods in Colorado and people fleeing from the Washington Navy Yard in the wake of a rampage shooting that killed 13 people. Tragedies like these can cause overwhelming anxiety.
It’s important for parents to recognize that their kids will pick up on whatever emotions they feel about these events. So-called “emotional contagion” happens at an unconscious level, as cells in our brains detect subtle (and not-so-subtle) emotional signals from others. That unconscious mirroring of other people’s feelings can give rise to uneasy feelings we just can’t identify. One minute we’re feeling pretty good. The next minute we’re feeling edgy and we don’t know why.
We’d all like to think we can keep our emotions on the down-low so they don’t affect our behavior. But there’s really no way to hide our feelings. Hidden emotions are often disguised in other (less scary) emotions, for instance when we act angry to avoid admitting we feel scared. Cues to our hidden feelings leak out in micro-facial expressions, tone of voice, and changes in posture. And other people — including kids — pick up on them.
Trying to hide your feelings is next-to-impossible. And it’s also unhealthy. Until you acknowledge your feelings you can’t respond to them thoughtfully.
Turns out one of the best ways to help yourself handle bad feelings and keep others from unwittingly catching them is to label emotions with words. When you say, “I’m nervous because the shooting happened so close to home,” or “I’m scared because I have friends who live close to the flood zone,” you move from reaction to response mode. You put yourself in a position to take action on the issue instead of feeling overwhelmed by the emotions it created.
How are you feeling today? Use your words and put your emotions in perspective. Then find a way to move forward.