Emotions are the leading indicator of how young people see themselves today. But when parents and educators dismiss emotions altogether as unreliable and even dangerous, fireworks can ignite. Should we step into the emotional world of a child? And how? In this episode, Counselor Keith McCurdy offers parents and teachers sound advice about shaping your children’s perceptions so that emotions are put in their proper place.
Keith McCurdy has worked with families, children, parents and individuals for more than 25 years in the field of mental health logging more than 75,000 clinical hours of experience. He received his Master of Arts and Education Specialist degrees from James Madison University. He is currently the President and CEO of Total Life Counseling, Inc. and is licensed in the state of Virginia as a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
He also serves as the Chairman of the Board at Faith Christian School, a Christian Classical school in Roanoke, VA. Keith is a regular contributor to The Roanoke Star with articles on children, parenting, and marriage. His primary focus is helping others better understand how a Christian Worldview, not psychology, should be the primary influence in parenting and relationships today.
Keith is an avid outdoorsman and is actively involved with Boy Scouts of America and coaching high school basketball. He and his wife Lynnie have been married for 21 years and enjoy raising their two teenagers.
Step Boldly into Your Child’s Emotional World
~ A Conversation with Keith McCurdy
“How was your day, honey?”
Looking offended, your precious and dearly loved child reports that their lunch was cold, or not hot enough, they forgot their sweater because a thief stole it and why do we have to wear uniforms anyway, this school gives entirely too much homework so there’s no time for chores, and everyone in class looked at them like they had three heads when they asked a question.
How do you respond to this creature spewing emotional muck, you wonder?
Cautions on both sides of the fence
According Davies Owens, host of BaseCamp Live, “there’s a ditch on either side” that parents often fall into when responding to their child’s emotions. Maybe you’ve found yourself in either the sympathy ditch or the blasting ditch. Some parents just nose dive right over.
Recent BaseCamp Live guest Keith McCurdy, a counselor for twenty-five years in mental health, agrees. The parents he works with are often “too emotional and want kids feeling good all of the time or afraid of emotions”.
But can we and should we step into the emotional world of a child?
Yes! When it comes to dealing with emotions, McCurdy says, “We have to. I don’t think we can cut off who a child is or who a teenager is and effectively do anything with them. I think it’s very difficult to effectively teach a child in the educational framework unless we also have an understanding of really where they are to some degree emotionally and how to engage that. That doesn’t necessarily mean engaging the therapeutic process with them but really being there for where they are in that point as well emotionally.”
For better or worse, emotions are the leading indicator of how young people sees themselves. But when parents and educators think emotions are unreliable and even dangerous, fireworks can ignite.
These two worlds must coalesce. What’s a parent to do?
Helping kids understand what shapes their perceptions: the brain and emotions
According to McCurdy, our brains have something called a“Negative Confirmation Bias”. This means that “if we don’t intentionally focus on anything, we will automatically notice the negative first.”
For instance, we tend to notice what is wrong or annoying about others before we focus on their good points. That’s also why kids often share the negative stories first when they get in the car.
The second factor shaping our perceptions are our emotions. However, says McCurdy, “Our emotions cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Our emotions cannot discern truth on their own and we have to understand that our emotional world fuels our perception even more so than just thinking about the negative.”
Problems occur when feelings lead the way. And with our kids growing up in a culture that idolizes feelings, they have a battle to fight in order to maintain a healthy perspective when life gets hard.
“Freud gave us this notion…that truth resides in the individual…so all of the sudden there’s no truth, beauty and goodness that’s transcendent and agreed upon which makes everything subjective. It’s easy to see…how I feel must be the most important thing because I’m feeling it. And we’ve got to reorder that.”
If feelings are a broken compass, how can parents reorder and redirect those feelings?
Change their “frame of reference” and you change their emotions
Just like when you buy a Honda minivan and suddenly you notice that exact model all over town, we mentally note what relates to our frame of reference. Likewise, we’re more appreciative when the good is brought to our attention.
According to McCurdy, parents must be intentional about pointing their child to what is good…we must help them build a healthier frame of reference.
As Paul writes to the Philippians, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Phil 4:8
Go the route of empathy
If parents tend to fall into the sympathy ditch or the blasting ditch, what is the middle safe ground?
Choose empathy. Parents should first acknowledge their child’s feelings with, “I hear you…I get it.” By doing so they speak into their child’s perception and can offer truth and encouragement.
“Then his experience matches the truth the parent shared and the child begins to have the discernment ability that his emotions are not always true.”
In the classroom
Owens notes that educators, too, need to acknowledge that a student is “an emotional being and having an emotional reaction.” Though obedience is the goal, just telling them to obey means that you are arguing from the mind and that is not where the child is currently at.
In fact, says Owens, “We’re giving them full credence that they are fully an emotional human being. And if we don’t allow the emotions to enter the conversation then it creates this bifurcated kid…this very wooden classical kid that lives a different world outside our doors and on the secular screen-based emotional world.”
Additionally, McCurdy points out that often the struggle isn’t in the doing of something, it’s the contemplating of something.
When teachers see a student’s frustration, such as during Speech Meet or when preparing a Senior Thesis, they should engage them where they are by acknowledging these feelings but then pointing them beyond. In other words, “We’re going to do some things here that some other places are not doing. We’re going to allow you to struggle, wallow around in it, and contemplate.”
We all have bad days…
Perhaps you remember reading the honest yet entertaining children’s story, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst.
As he experiences his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, Alexander repeats over and over that life is probably better in Australia. At the end, Alexander’s mother wisely empathizes that indeed some days are like that…even if you live in Australia.
So which side of the ditch do you tend to slip into: sympathy or blasting? Look for opportunities to help your child’s emotions by changing your child’s frame of reference and expressing empathy. God gave us emotions and we are emotional creatures, but we shouldn’t be ruled by them at home, at school or out in the world. Let’s put emotions in the proper perspective for ourselves and our children so that someday they will leave home guided by something greater than their feelings.