Dear Therapist:

What can I do to help my child express his emotions better? Most of my kids young and old don’t have any problems discussing issues, how they feel, or expressing emotion but my 8-year-old just doesn’t seem to have the vocabulary to describe how he feels. He seems to get “stuck” when it comes to emotions. Overall, he is a great kid who does well in school and with friends; it’s when it comes to things of a more emotional nature (when he is worried about something, disappointed, sad, etc.) that he just stays in his head. Is this something that he will just grow into? How can I help him along?

 

Response:

Is it bad for someone not to express emotions? Sure. But it’s also good…and neutral. People are complicated, and no two people are alike with regard to their coping mechanisms. Since coping skills are largely developed in childhood, no two children develop their coping skills in the same way.

Repression and denial are two of the defense mechanisms that are developed early in life. When one represses emotions, these emotions are relegated to the unconscious mind. Denial is when the conscious mind refuses to acknowledge that something painful actually occurred. Both spare the conscious mind from having to deal with the problem. What all defense mechanisms have in common is the fact that they are unconsciously driven (not done purposefully).

Defense mechanisms have been much vaunted as negative. Indeed, they can become problematic when they become a person’s standard method of dealing with feelings. Recognize, however, that we all utilize defense mechanisms to one extent or another. Since these mechanisms are developed in childhood, they become a part of the way in which we cope.

The reason that children develop defense mechanisms is that they don’t have the maturity, insight, or life experience to understand their emotions and to view issues from the proper perspective. To young children, an adult (and even an older sibling) is often perceived as perfect and unerring. For example, when a young child is told—or senses—that an adult thinks that they are worthless, that can easily be viewed as fact. This can obviously cause the child to believe that they are worthless.

With regard to the defenses that I mentioned, this child can unconsciously refuse to believe that the incident occurred, or they can refuse to acknowledge their feelings of hurt and worthlessness. Since the child doesn’t possess the cognitive ability to understand the full scope of the circumstances, a defense becomes necessary so that they can somehow cope with the negative feelings.  

As parents, we can help our children to understand things from a more logical perspective. In the above example, the parents might help the child to recognize that adults are not perfect, that they may say or do things that are not correct, and that it’s ok for the child to feel upset. The goal is not only to help the child to acknowledge their feelings and resolve the current problem, but to help them develop a better way of generally dealing with negative feelings.

The hope is that, as we grow older—and our insight and maturity develop—we rely more on our conscious, logical thoughts to resolve issues. As this happens, our reliance on unconscious methods will decrease. 

Your son’s trouble discussing his emotions may be indicative of his developing defense mechanisms. To some extent, he may also be developing healthy coping skills. Simply not discussing his feelings may not be a cause for concern. The question is whether some of his feelings are giving him a negative sense about himself—and if he is therefore beginning to rely too heavily on unconscious defenses. If there’s obviously something bothering him, he may be unable (or feel too defensive) to discuss it. If it’s clear that he is not resolving the issue on his own, you may nevertheless be able to help him to view troubling experiences from a more healthy perspective.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY   |   Far Rockaway, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer

 www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317