The Wonderful Power of Listening to Feelings

AUTHOR: JOSS GOULDEN
DATE PUBLISHED: 4 Oct 2022

How crying is misunderstood in our culture:

There is a cultural misunderstanding about the purpose of tears. There is also frequently discomfort around feelings and the expression of feelings, whether from other people or in relation to expressing our own feelings. Crying in babies is also often only seen as an expression of immediate need and something that we need to soothe, and this can be confusing for parents. Whilst crying in babies and young children can be to communicate an unmet need, such as hunger or discomfort, when we meet that need, the crying will stop. But if our children are crying because they are stressed and upset, there is no immediate need, and so instead of feeding or rocking our babies or distracting our older children, or trying to get our toddlers to calm down, we can instead welcome the expression of feelings and allow them to offload the stress to return to feeling balanced and calm.

Tears and tantrums can often create strong responses in parents – including fear, rage, frustration, confusion, resentment, anxiety, depression and overwhelm. Parents often feel that they need to stop their children from crying or having tantrums, either in order to stop them experiencing painful emotions or to punish them for “misbehaving”. Sometimes we feel that our job as parents is to stop babies and children from crying in whatever way we can. Because crying is misunderstood, parents often feel confusion about comfort, and believe that they need to  teach their children to self soothe, or to respond by distracting, ignoring, punishing or placating, withdrawing love to teach them a lesson,  or teasing and shaming our children, or to reward them for not crying.

Crying in children is often seen as a sign that our children are spoiled, manipulating, immature, dys-regulated,  demanding, wilful, badly behaved, naughty or even suffering from a psychiatric or behavioural disorder.

Aletha Solter, founder of Aware Parenting, has done considerable research into crying and tantrums for 40 years which she shares in her many books, including “Healing your Traumatized Child” and “Tears and Tantrums”. She describes how crying is often a natural stress-release mechanism that supports our babies and children (and ourselves) to release and heal from the effects of difficult or traumatic experiences. It is a natural recovery process that children will spontaneously use to release stress and trauma when they are experiencing emotional pain. Aware Parenting recognises that babies and children know how to reach a calm state, so they don’t need to be taught to calm down and soothe themselves. Crying is understood to be instinctive behaviour and our children need to go through some emotions before they they can return to feeling balanced, calm and connected.

Dr Solter explains that if we try to force our children to reach that calm state prematurely by us finding ways to calm them down artificially without finishing their crying with our loving support that they need to do, then they don’t stay calm for long.  When we are trying to soothe them in some way, we are interrupting and disrupting their natural healing mechanism. When we soothe our children to try to make them feel better, we are not making the hurt go away, we are just suppressing their feelings to come up later at another time. Crying is seen as the process of becoming unhurt, so, when our children are crying, Aware Parenting encourages us to resist the temptation to put something in their mouths, to rock or soothe or calm them down, because these responses are just suppressing their emotions. Our children will stop crying once they have finished expressing what they need to share.

So, not only are crying and tantrums not misbehaviour, by listening to our children’s big feelings they will offload the stress and tension that causes misbehaviour, making their behaviour less challenging, all whilst feeling connected to their parents and loved.

We now increasingly understand the role of stress underlying many diseases, and that suppressed, unreleased feelings cause stress, hyper-arousal and dissociation in our bodies. So we see with Aware Parenting, that crying improves physical health as well as emotional health. In addition, crying and listening to our children while they express their emotions creates deeper parent-child connections and shows our children that we will always try to be there for them, supporting them when they are in pain.

The Beneficial healing effects of crying.

Aware Parenting explains the meaning and function of crying more clearly and this means that parents can learn to interpret their children’s behaviour more accurately and know how to respond in a way that supports healing and optimal development. Allowing these natural biological recovery processes to work means our children can emerge out of the state of hyper-arousal or dissociation and thereby we raise emotionally intelligent and mature adults. Giving correct info to parents and supportive strategies to respond most appropriately to their children creates more emotional safety for babies and children and is empowering for parents and children.

As Dr Solter explains “Crying is the process of becoming unhurt and unstressed. Children will continue to feel upset and stressed if their crying is cut short. Our role as parents is not to stop our children from crying, but to love and support them so they can fully release their emotions”.

Healing trauma through lovingly listening to our children crying, allows our children to complete what didn’t happen at the time of the trauma, through these physiological processes. Shedding tears helps excrete excessive amounts of stress hormones from our bodies thereby creating homeostasis. The tender closeness with a loving parent during tears, helps balance our nervous system. Body movements during crying and tantrums are also very important in recreating a full body experience and these are the movements of fight and flight.

How do we know that crying is healing for us and for our children?

We can see by the results of observing our children and ourselves after having big cries with loving support. Our children sleep better, they are more relaxed in their bodies, more cooperative, much less aggressive and challenging after a good cry. When we observe our children we can see that  their physiology is so much more obviously balanced.

And as adults when we get to express our feelings, we feel calm again, we feel acknowledged and understood, we find parenting so much easier and we have capacity to support our children more, we sleep well, we feel deeply connected to our children and to ourselves, we feel happy, relaxed and less stressed again.

How do we listen to feelings to support our children?

In her booking “Healing your traumatized child”, Dr Solter outlines the different elements that we can use to support our children. Firstly we ensure we are creating an environment of emotional safety for our children by offering them unconditional love, connection and physical presence, playful connection and non-punitive discipline. This ensures the environment is right for them to feel safe to offload their stress and heal from trauma. Then, we are able to support them best when we:

  • Hold them lovingly in our arms or stay very close
  • Touch them tenderly
  • Pay attention and give them our presence,
  • Listen closely to what they are sharing
  • Use a gentle loving voice to say “yes I hear you, I am with you, I will stay with you til you feel better, I welcome all of your feelings”
  • Keep them and everyone else safe.  
  • Resist the urge to explain, fix, interrupt, comment, judge whether their response is justified or not
  • Ensure we are not blaming, or getting angry or shaming of them
  • Just offering them listening, acknowledging, trusting that they are doing exactly what they need to do
  • Gently remind them of the hurt “You really wanted to stay at the park today. I am here and listening”
  • Don’t need to question them to find out more in the moment when they are crying and raging
  • If the raging includes angry words directed at us, we can translate those words and not take them personally. If this is hard, we can take this to share with our listening partners.  
  • Resist the temptation to stop the crying by distraction and instead we welcome the tears and raging
  • Listening to them until they are all the way through their healing. We allow them to decide when they have finished.
  • Remind ourselves that we are helping to reduce stress and overwhelm, especially for young children.
  • Trusting that our children will be able to recover and to figure out how to resolve things and find solutions themselves.
  • Often listening to our children’s feelings brings up stuff for us, in which case get support.
  • Having sessions with an Aware Parenting instructor or reaching out to our listening partner is crucial
  • Receiving our own listening and getting to cry and rage ourselves is so important
  • If we are finding ourselves getting upset or reactive to their tears, we can let our children know that we see they are upset and have feelings but can’t listen anymore and explain that we are going to rock them or soothe them right now and will listen to feelings later
  • Not judging ourselves or feeling guilty or making ourselves wrong when we can’t listen at that time  

We can see the amazing power of listening to feelings when we imagine being a child who can know that it is safe to express how they feel. How amazing it is for our children to feel that we will love them and welcome them however they show up, that we care and we understand how they are feeling, that we are always there as their rock when they are navigating though storms, that we will always try to acknowledge their feelings without judgement. What an incredible way to grow up.

As I said above, our need as adults to cry and rage and share to heal our trauma is so important. Most of us have significant accumulated feelings from our childhood that never got to be heard and parenting in our nuclear families often feels hard and we have plenty of stress about the parenting process too. We may have learnt to suppress our feelings as it wasn’t safe to express them and reconnecting to our feelings and learning to express them is often a difficult process. We need opportunities to cry to release and heal ourselves and support to reconnect to this powerful innate healing mechanism. This could be with a listening partner, having sessions with someone who understands this approach, sending voice notes to a friend or mentor.

The impact of listening to feelings at a societal level:

Allowing our children and ourselves to express feelings is not only crucial for our family’s well-being. Unhealed trauma and the accumulation of stress in our bodies, is the source of many diseases but it is also the source of many of the problems in the world because it results in people behaving with violence and aggression. We can see that war, the destruction of the planet, and the suffering of many humans is the direct result of powerful leaders with unhealed trauma. By helping our children to heal while they are young, we can help the world to heal. The impact and power of the things we do in our homes to support our children and ourselves to heal is extraordinary. Aware parenting is changing the world.  

Your parenting coach and mentor

About Joss Goulden

I am a trauma-informed Parenting Coach and a Level 2 Aware Parenting instructor, certified with the Aware Parenting Institute. I have been practising Aware Parenting for 17 years and am the mother of 2 children, aged 19 and 17.

I am also passionate about Homeschooling and Natural Learning. I have homeschooled my 2 children and I have been supporting families with Homeschooling and Natural Learning for many years.
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I am so passionate about sharing this beautiful approach with parents. I believe that Aware Parenting is THE solution for so many of the challenges facing the world. - Joss Goulden, Aware Parenting Instructor
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