Identifying External Emotional Influences in Children

upset child with hands over earsMy teen and I had a rough Saturday. There’s no way to sugar coat the friction between us, the sparks that kept flying and the frustration that we both felt with an afternoon that was more characterized by sullen silences and resentment than anything that approached our usual mutual affection and amused teasing of each other. The good news is that we do have a good relationship, but the bad news, obviously, is that it’s terrible to get into a tense, uncomfortable situation with a child. It happens…


But as is my wont, after things settled down I asked her what had happened between us and whether any outside influences might have affected our interaction.

She was quiet for a moment then admitted that yes, there were other things happening with her that afternoon that “might have” affected our interaction, upsets, friction with others in her social circle and definitely a dose of frustration about having to juggle the logistics of a two-household life rather than just one house with all her stuff in one place. I totally get that last complaint, for sure.

I also shared with her what else was going on with me last weekend, partially just to let her know what’s up in my life but also to model what I think is a very important interpersonal communications skill:

Being able to identify when external events influence your mood or behavior.

This is something that I think is a great skill to both teach children and to model as an adult too, actually. Too often we’re in a bad mood because of something else that has happened, a hostile email, a fight with the boss, a snarky text from a partner, a bad grade on a term paper, and instead of identifying it and saying “Meetings all day wasted my time and now I have to work tonight. I’m in a bad mood. Beware.” we keep mum on these things and are just cranky, testy or downright mean to those closest to us.

It’s an odd way to go through life if you think about it. External events that aren’t our fault end up affecting the moods of those around us and cause us to collectively get along poorly, be overly sensitive or hyper-critical, or just generally unpleasant, rather than just naming the darn problem.

So think about your children and how you interact with them. Do you ask them “How did today go?” and give them the space to actually answer, perhaps not immediately and eloquently, or do you immediately jump into your own stuff and are then surprised when they’re glum, distracted, depressed, frustrated or hostile? And — of course — immediately conclude it’s something you’ve done and try to talk them through what you think is happening or lecture them on how they need to have a better attitude or be more respectful, all the while being completely clueless about the fact that it’s an external influence?  Hmmm….

4 comments on “Identifying External Emotional Influences in Children

  1. Compartmentalizing is an important social skill, to be sure. Just keep in mind that it’s a difficult skill to learn. Most adults can’t always name the real problem.

    Sometimes kids (and wives and husbands and, I suppose, everybody) just need to be able to vent and release their emotions on somebody safe. They can’t yell at their teachers or bosses without repercussions, but they can yell at me and I’ll still love them. They at least know that a fight is the worst outcome.

    It leads to catharsis and, when things work right, a calmer head with which to identify the real issues.

  2. I’m glad you wrote this the last paragraph especially made me think of my attitude toward my son. He was frustrated when he was trying to talk to me and I was preoccupied with my thoughts and frustrations. I lectured him about his attitude. But it wasn’t him it was me worrying about my day instead of listening to him. Thanks I need to hear that.

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