By Jude Bijou MA MFT
As every parent knows, youngsters are good at expressing their emotions. They cry when a need is not being met, have a temper tantrum when they feel denied, and shiver and withdraw when they’re fearful. After expressing their emotions spontaneously and physically, they pause to re-evaluate and recover, and then bounce back to their joyful, fully present selves.
The theory of Attitude Reconstruction® contends that unexpressed sadness, anger, and fear are at the root of any destructive behavior, whether it’s being a wallflower, tattle-tail or perfectionist. Anxiety, bullying or reluctance to go to school are other symptoms that indicate children are not expressing their emotions in a healthy way.
To help children climb out of less-than-desirable ways of being, we need to explore the realm of emotions, because if they learn to deal with them constructively and physically, they can keep their attention on the fullness and magic of the present moment.
Unexpressed Emotions Keep Us Stuck in “Bad Attitudes”
The problem arises because both adults and children don’t know how to manage their emotions. Our kids model us. It’s daunting, but not difficult, to successfully model how to deal with emotions constructively. But let’s start with some background.
What is an emotion? Emotions are just pure sensations in our bodies. Emotion = E + motion = energy in motion. According to Attitude Reconstruction®, we humans only have six emotions: sadness, anger, fear, and joy, love, and peace. Each has a unique bodily sensation as well as a physical expression.
When young, we expressed our sadness, anger, and fear spontaneously and then returned back to our happy, present selves. As we got a little older, we received countless messages from family, peers, media, and culture that it was not okay to express these emotions physically. The result is that we learned to hold a lot of emotional energy inside.
“OK Rooms” for Constructively Releasing Trapped Emotions
The “OK Room” is a designated place in our home where we can release the emotions of sadness, anger, and fear in a safe, private, and effective way without harming oneself, others, and things of value. It can be in a spare bedroom, the garage, or bathroom. Parents can provide such things as pillows for screaming into, old phone books to pound, heavy bags to punch, cardboard boxes or magazines to rip apart, and boxes of tissues and stuff animals for crying.
Every family needs to designate an area in the house, and then we all need to use it. If we adults start to handle our emotions differently, our children will gladly follow our lead. It can seem embarrassing at first. However, once we express our emotions naturally, physically and constructively, we experience the amazing benefits. Releasing sadness, anger, and fear enables us to process our upsets and fully be the parents that we truly want to be and model.
How to Express Sadness, Anger, and Fear Constructively and Physically
There are detailed and comprehensive strategies for dealing with any destructive attitude springing from sadness, anger, and fear in Attitude Reconstruction: A Blueprint for Building a Better Life. But here are a few techniques to get families started.
Remember not to stop your child from emoting by distracting them, shaming them or trying to talk them out of what they feel. Just take them someplace in the house where they can express the emotional energy safely.
Releasing Sadness. Cry when you feel sad, but while doing so, refrain from shaming or pitying yourself. Crying washes us clean. It’s healthy to let the tears out when we feel them surfacing. So ignore external pressures that tell you to hold it in, and go ahead and sob. While you do, don’t indulge your “poor me…I’m no good” thinking. Allow yourself to cry while telling yourself, “I feel sad. It’s okay. I’m okay. I just need to cry.”
Releasing Anger. Expressing anger entails releasing that pent-up emotional energy in a physical and constructive way. Go to the OK Room and punch the air with your fists. Scream and shout into a pillow. Lie on your back on a bed and flail your arms, legs, and head. Tear up old magazines. Or even without a designated OK Room, if no one is home or family members have been forewarned, stomp through the house or push against a doorjamb. If you use words, yell something like, “It’s okay. I feel SO frustrated!“ Do it hard, fast, and with abandon until you’re exhausted. When you’re finished, notice how you instantly feel calmer and more responsive.
Releasing Fear. Shiver the fear energy out of your body rather than tightening up. When you feel agitated, let your body do what’s natural. Wiggle, jiggle, shudder, tremble, and quiver —up the spine, out the arms, legs, hands, and in the neck and jaw. It might sound weird, but intuitively it makes sense. Just give it a try. Ham it up. Put on music. It may sound strange at first, but if you express the emotional energy with vigor, it will move out of your body and you’ll feel relaxed. By releasing the fear physically, you feel more peaceful, centered, and focused. While shivering, just remind yourself: “It’s okay. I’m just feeling scared. I just need to shake. I’m fine. Everything is okay.”
Children Want to Emote—and Parents Can Help Them
Children look forward to using OK Rooms because they have permission to thrash, pound, kick, scream, laugh and cry — to express their emotions and experience the benefits. Who doesn’t want a place to just let go when they feel at the end of their rope? Within five or ten minutes, you’re ready to resume dealing with anything thrown your way.
In one middle school where they already have a designated OK Room, kids look forward to getting time to emote safely. Recently, a child came up to the teacher on the way to recess and said, “I think I’m going to get in a fight. Can I go to the OK Room?”
We’ve been hearing lots of debates recently about “causes” for violence in our school systems. Arguing over gun control is like focusing on the symptom and ignoring the disease. As a nation, we need to address the problem at its origin — at the root cause. Underneath all of these senseless acts are unexpressed emotions — especially anger, but also fear and sadness.
Not only do we need to designate an OK Room at home, but also at each school, hospital, prison and even business. Having a safe place to let the emotional energy out physically will allow us all to process inevitable upsets and frustrations so we can be our best selves.
The solution is simple: Start with you and your child. Begin to identify and release sadness, anger and fear in a healthy way and safe place that does no harm to others. This one change will decrease the destructive attitudes and behaviors both you and your children exhibit and increase the amount of family calm, connection and celebration.It’s effective. It’s inexpensive. And it’s transformational.
Give it a wholehearted try and you’ll see what I mean.
Jude Bijou MA MFT is a respected psychotherapist, professional educator, and workshop leader. Her theory of Attitude Reconstruction® evolved over the course of more than 30 years as a licensed marriage and family therapist, and is the subject of her multi-award-winning book, Attitude Reconstruction: A Blueprint for Building a Better Life. Learn more at attitudereconstruction.com.