It’s a cold windy day in Patchogue, NY. I have been traveling for almost a week training teachers and other professionals and I am about to do it again for the 5th time in the last 6 days. I wake up, get dressed and head off to the local coffee shop. I am in a relatively upbeat and happy mood because I actually love conducting trainings and I find energy from it. I walk in, head to the counter and that’s when it starts. A slight unease, a sort or shift. I start to feel slightly anxious as I move through the line to get my pumpkin spice latte. Thinking back, the shift was most likely due to normal social anxiety; after all I was in a new city, with cloudy cold weather and lots of strangers clamoring to acquire the pick me up and engaging in meetings all around me.
I sit down and purposefully center my awareness on my environment and myself. I have been talking about feelings for days so it makes sense I am more aware of my own. What I notice startles me. As I sit down, I feel the urge to pull out my phone from my pocket and start scrolling through my social media apps. I pause, suppress the urge and start to pay attention to others around me; particularly as they walk in and go through the same routine as I did. As you can imagine, and as I am sure you have done yourself, almost everyone who is not engaged in direct conversation does the same thing; except they are not suppressing the urge to pull out the phone and start scrolling.
We are growing up, raising families and living in a world that is changing at a pace that frankly most cannot even comprehend. The technology revolution has hit a stride and has enmeshed itself into every component of our lives. In the midst of this revolution, has been another change. I’ll call it the Feelings Avoidance Epidemic. Parents all over this country are unwitting participants in it and I believe if they knew what kind on long term negative impact it will have for their children, they would stop it in its tracks.
What is the Feelings Avoidance Epidemic?
Simply put, it is the cultural shift in the last 10-15 years to “protect, prevent or rescue” children from their feelings or emotions due to normal life experiences. It’s the pressure we feel to leave every child that attends our son or daughter’s birthday party with a trinket to help prevent those children from feeling naturally jealous. Our “trophy for every kid” culture would stop because we would realize that protecting children from feeling sadness and disappointment at losing a soccer game is a natural part of learning about emotions; that feelings are not something to avoid or escape, but rather signals our body gives us to help us learn and make healthy choices.
One of the lessons in Building Emotional Intelligence: A Skills Based Curriculum for Improving Children’s Coping, Social and Academic Success, I ask students what was the first thing they felt when they woke up besides feeling tired. When a few say “hungry”, I intently lean in and say “How did you know you were hungry?” Most get it right away. Our feelings, in our bodies, are important clues that help us determine, many times with adult guidance, what we may or may not need to do in a situation; which may include nothing at all but to sit in the tension of an uncomfortable feeling. When as children we learn directly and indirectly feelings are something to be avoided, or feelings are things I will be rescued from, we do not effectively learn the healthy ways to cope with uncomfortable feelings when they arise say in a working environment. For years as a trauma therapist I dealt with this avoidance from clients. They however, had significant trauma in their lives that brought them to therapy. Now, I see the byproducts of this feelings avoidance in many children where trauma might not be present.
Many adults demonstrate this avoidant behavior as well; and model it for their children without even knowing it. That is what was happening in the coffee shop. Customers would come in, feel the normal anxiety relating to the potential to strike up a conversation with a stranger, want to avoid that feeling and so would pull out the phone and start scrolling. It has become so prevalent, that many of us are seeing this at stop lights when we pull up and there is a homeless person on the corner or just cars with other drivers on each side. Phone out…thumbs scrolling…head down…because I don’t like and want to avoid the feeling of anxiousness that comes with making eye contact with someone I do not know.
So what do we do? We are living in a digital age. It is not going away and so just as I told many of my students when I was the Dean that the real trick is to learn how to live in a digital world while maintaining balance in all things tech AND all things social emotional.
- Practice the Counter Strategy: Understand, notice and embrace our own struggles in this area and do the opposite every other time; in other words you counter with an opposite move. One time you go in the coffee shop and scroll head down. The next time you purposefully do the opposite and embrace the feeling, accept it and be in that moment.
- Teach children the truth about feelings and emotions: Think of feelings as not bad or good, which places value judgments on emotions but rather comfortable or uncomfortable. The uncomfortable ones can help you learn what to do just as well as the comfortable ones. Think of your feelings as a traffic light. We all know what we are supposed to do when the light turns colors and so too can we learn what to do when the feelings within us change. My favorite quote about feelings is on the website but speaks so loudly to this point: Feelings are like waves. You can’t stop them from coming, but you can choose which ones to surf – by Jonatan Mårtensson
- Stop rescuing them from their uncomfortable feelings: In order to accomplish this, we need to work on managing our own nervous systems better which for many adults is difficult without help. In the absence of this help, maybe just start with working through and letting go of your own fear when a child is angry, jealous, sad or disappointed. It is our fear that drives our urge to rescue.
- Reduce your need to avoid those same feelings: I get it. I’m a parent of 3 kids. I know the struggle. I also know how important it is for us to model what is healthy and not take the easy way out. At soccer practice, at the doctor’s office waiting area, cut down or eliminate handing the tablet to your child to cope with what would be normal behavior that produces feelings of embarrassment and anxiety in us. It’s OK. You’re doing a good job mom and dad. You’ll actually be doing what is most healthy for them and for you!
- Spread the word: I have yet to write a blog that has gone outside my circle of influence. I feel sad about that (this is modeling folks 😉). Seriously. Sharing this information is crucial so we can change the tide of this epidemic. If you have found any of this helpful or enlightening, please share it. Everyone needs to know for the sake our children who are desperately crying out to us (cue the blog on struggles in middle school 😊).
Aaron is the executive director of High Mountain Counseling & Training Institute in Denver, a former Dean and 3x published author including 2 books on emotional intelligence. More information on his work can be found at allabouttrauma.com and buildemotionalintelligence.com