Nothing drives me crazier than hearing a parent tell a child to “zip it” or “stop crying”. If parents knew the damage they do when childhood emotions get stifled, they’d think twice about their reactions.
Why childhood emotions shouldn’t be stifled
When a child is told to bottle up their emotions, two things happen. The child learns that emotions are bad and they also learn that their distress isn’t important. This inadvertently shames the child. An association between being “bad” and “showing emotions” is created and the problems begin…
Emotions are normal and should be expressed. It’s the body’s way of letting go of negative, distressing energy. When that energy has to be suppressed, it can lead to anger, anxiety, and even depression over time. Negative energy needs to flow out rather than being left to marinate and cause mental health or physical issues.
When childhood emotions get stifled, children have to resort to other ways to self-soothe. Sometimes, this can take the form of bullying, passive-aggressive behaviour such as breaking things or they might end up taking their distress out of themselves in the form of self-harm, suicide attempts, or in the form of eating disorders.
It’s a well-known fact among mental health professionals that eating disorders can emerge from a lack of control. When an individual feels they have no control over their lives or their circumstances – their bodies become the final bastion of self-expression and control.
The extreme results of stifling childhood emotions
Apart from behavioural disorders, such as oppositional defiant disorder, personality disorders may arise when childhood emotions are stifled. is believed to
Many people with borderline personality disorder (now known as Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder) have had experiences of emotional invalidation. Emotional invalidation is when someone communicates to you that your emotions are not valid, are unreasonable or irrational, or should be hidden or concealed.
For example, when a child is frightened, a parent might say, “Stop being such a baby, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” This is an emotionally invalidating response: It communicates to the child that their emotions are invalid but also that they are weak for having emotions.
A healthier parental response:
Alternatively, a parent might respond with, “I understand you’re feeling afraid. Tell me what’s happening to make you scared.” This is a validating response: It tells the child that their emotions are respected (even if the parent may not agree that there is an objective reason to be scared).
When childhood emotions are stifled, children don’t learn natural healthy ways to deal with strong emotions. The response will create the opposite effect of heigtening the emotions for a child and create an association of fear and anxiety related to emotions.
This, in turn, could lead to an adult who is disassociated from their emotions, cannot identify their emotions and struggles with empathy for others.