When I was a child, like all children, when I didn’t like something, you knew it. Crying is one of the first forms of communication, after all.
After developing some language, my ability to communicate with words improved, but my use of communicating with emotions–particularly when the emotions were unpleasant–remained. This is also human nature. We call it, “the terrible twos” for a reason. Though two-year-olds can talk, they also have limited vocabularies and, when frustrated, melt into a tantrum.
Being a mom of teenagers, I can say my children’s vocabularies are very robust. While they may not always use fifty-cent words, they are pretty capable of understanding them. In many ways, by the time children get to middle school, they are learning to do things their parents forgot how to do decades ago. Yet, teenagers still engage in tantrums. While they have a proficient and even exemplary command of words (after all, how would you do on the vocabulary portion of the SAT exam), their ability to emote anger, frustration, stress, repulsion, irritation, etc. is unparalleled. If you don’t believe me, you need to live with a teenager and then ask them annoying questions like, “How’s your day going" or "Do you want to eat?" The venom which can accompany these queries is like a parental game of Russian Roulette.
Here’s the thing, while I don’t really like it, I am able to understand why infants, toddlers, and teenagers communicate their emotions through their actions. Infants can’t talk. Toddlers can’t fully articulate their wants or understand why they can’t get their way. Teenagers, though physically quite like adults, do not have fully developed prefrontal cortexes which GoodTherapy.org reminds us:
contributes to a wide variety of executive functions, including:
Focusing one’s attention
Predicting the consequences of one’s actions; anticipating events in the environment
Impulse control; managing emotional reactions
Planning for the future
Coordinating and adjusting complex behaviors (“I can’t do A until B happens”)
In other words, infants, toddlers, and teenagers all have very good reasons why they communicate with their emotions in addition to communicating about their feelings with their words. In fact, in humans, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the mid to late twenties. Yes. After people can get their driver’s licenses, after they are able to vote, after they are able to serve in the military or go to college or start a career, and after they are able to drink.
I am certainly not in my mid to late twenties. In fact, at this point, I am nearly two decades beyond that point. Yet, I have to admit, this is the chapter in my life when I am actively trying to work on communicating my emotions without being emotional. Instead of raising my voice when I am upset, I am trying to calmly and rationally name the emotion and talk through why I feel that way.
This is not easy for me. I was raised in a house where raising voices in anger was common. This match between feeling and behavior, while maybe basic, was not healthy nor mature. This was not just the nature of being a child and displaying emotions–this was nurture; seeing/hearing adults behave this way. We didn’t learn to name our emotions, we learned to emote.
I’ve perpetuated these patterns as a parent. When my children were young, if they did something I didn’t like, I’d tell them through my words and my volume. I allowed their being out of control to allow me to lose control of myself. Ironically, rather than feeling good, it made me feel bad. In response, I started to actively and consciously work on not yelling when I was upset. At first, it sounded like what I called, “whisper yelling” where I would essentially snarl my words in a whisper so my tone was harsh even if my volume was low. “I am not yelling,” I would growl in a very hushed volume, “But you need to know I am very upset right now and you need to knock it off!” Certainly, this was ridiculous, but it worked. I was able to keep myself in check better and I got my point across. Eventually, I didn’t even notice I was yelling or growling—I was just communicating so I could express my emotions without getting emotional (at least most of the time--I'm still human).
I am not saying it is unacceptable to show emotions. Showing emotions is a wonderful aspect of humanity. I certainly have cried when someone else is crying. I have laughed when someone else laughs. I have grown concerned because someone else has demonstrated concern. This is empathy and it is beautiful. At the same time, I have also gotten enraged when someone else is engaged. I have raised my voice in response to someone else raising their voice. I have been my worst self because someone else is not being their best self. The challenge is not the emotion, it’s communicating the emotion in a way that does not allow the emotion to be so loud that the words cannot be heard.
P.S. A few years ago, I got an email from Buffalo State College stating they got an email from two professors, Anna M. Quinzio-Zafran and Elizabeth A. Wilkins, who were working on the book The New Teacher’s Guide to Overcoming Common Challenges. The email stated they were looking for contributors to the book. I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring and I sent them my submission. To my surprise, it was accepted. Since publishing the book, they have also started a podcast called, New Teacher Talk.
My Catch of the Week is the episode I contributed to the podcast, “Engagement Strategies: A Necessary Buzzword.” In just over ten minutes, I summarized The Engagement Framework and gave tips on how to increase engagement in classrooms. I’d love for you to check it out (the competitive side of me wants to get over 50 downloads–and it’s at 17 at the time of this writing). While you're there, please also check out some of the other episodes–each one being no more than about ten minutes.