Childhood should be a time for free, spontaneous expression. Good mental health is important for our children to succeed. They deserve to learn all the tasks that will allow them to develop friendships and loving alliances with others. They deserve fit and willing teachers and parents who can help them learn the skills to deal with our complex world.
“Don’t talk, don’t trust and don’t feel!” are the three classic rules that are taught by families in dysfunctional homes according to Claudia Black, a nationally known writer in the addiction field. “Keep quiet, shut down and don’t ever, ever rock the boat” are messages many children grow up with. Families with dysfunctional behavior have the rule of keeping things secret to protect the family against criticism from others.
This message of secrecy results in a shut down of spontaneity in the young child. The child who has been physically or sexually abused grows up with deep shame about himself and his family. When parents are excessively critical, shame is a powerful emotion that hammers in the nails of the coffin of poor self-esteem in children as young as two or three years of age. Even in happy families, often there is an unwritten rule about not expressing negative feelings. The result of this is individuals who grow up not in touch with their feeling. They often use ineffective means of coping with stress, turn to alcohol and drugs to squelch negative feelings or turn the unexpressed feelings into physical body symptoms.
There are very few effective role models of how to express negative emotions appropriately. Who among us is comfortable about expressing dismay, disgust and anger in appropriate ways? We all have strong messages about how wonderful the positive emotions are. Most people cannot deal with strong expression of anger, frustration, sadness, fear or guilt because of their own internal rules about how wrong it is to feel these feelings let alone express them. At this point in our society, most people have not learned the skills of expressing negative feelings in a comfortable manner.
The most common patterns of coping with threat and stress in unhealthy families are anger, blaming the other person, submissiveness, distractable, hyperactive behavior or withdrawing and ignoring the problem. At NIH.gov they deal with this topic in great depth. These coping patterns are passed down from parent to child resulting in generations of dysfunctional behavior. Coping styles that were learned as children to keep the family isolated and safe do not work in adult life. To continue to live these rules as an adult is to continue to live in considerable pain.
Yet our knowledge base about living healthy lives is changing. Information about the ways to express ourselves in healthy ways is coming in from many fronts. Psychology, education and the addictions field offer hope for change to new means of expression. Family systems theory and research on children’s friendship give new ideas for helping children feel good about themselves. The concept of teaching social skills is drawn from learning theory and child development theory. Social skill training complements play or family therapy teaching positive ways to get along with others.
Socialization is the child’s ability to relate positively to people in society in a manner appropriate to his or her age. Prosocial skills give the child viable tools giving power over his emotions and make good choices about his behavior. These tools open up the number of choices that the child has available. Children who have a larger number of alternative skills to draw from have more self confidence in handling stressful situations.
The second part of this two-part series can be found here.