It is important to recognize that parents can do everything possible and still have a child fall into unhealthy behaviors. But it also is important for parents to understand that one powerful aspect of ‘doing everything possible’ involves working on your own psychological skills and modeling them for your child.
Emotional responsibility is one such skill. When most of us think about teaching children responsibility, we think about things such as showing up on time, completing schoolwork or chores, not drinking and driving, and not overspending.
These are all valuable. What we often forget to consider, however, is emotional responsibility — recognizing that each of us is responsible for making choices about how we respond to our feelings.
Emotionally responsible people are able to be aware of their feelings, and name and manage them. These skills allow a person to navigate life and relationships by making choices based in both emotions and clear reasoning. A child who learns emotional responsibility is less likely to be controlled by whatever feeling is present at a given moment. He or she also will be less vulnerable to impulsivity, emotionally unstable or abusive relationships. Emotionally responsible people also are less prone to substance abuse as a way to act out or to numb their feelings.
If we want to model emotional responsibility for our children, we must take responsibility for the way we deal with a situation, even if we believe that someone else is to blame for triggering our anger or pain. For example, when we are emotionally responsible, we can see that someone cutting us off on the highway is not the reason that we aggressively tailgate that car for the rest of the drive to work. Tailgating that driver is our way of dealing with our frustration and anger.
If we want to be emotionally responsible, we must slow down our reaction time and take space to identify our feelings. We must then reflect about whether it’s really the car cutting us off that is the reason for our intense rage or whether we also are annoyed about something that happened at home … or that our back hurts … or that we are angry with ourselves for not giving ourselves enough time to get to work on time. Then it’s our job to calm ourselves down enough so that we have a choice about how to respond. We may choose to tailgate; we may choose to take a few deep breaths and back off. Either way, we are now taking responsibility for dealing with our own emotions.
For those of us who weren’t taught emotional responsibility as children, learning this skill can feel like learning a completely new language. It can require continual work to develop awareness of what we are feeling and developing ways of handling those feelings so that they don’t take over and make choices for us. For those who are struggling with a painful loss, anxiety, depression, chronic worry, or an addiction issue, this process may be especially difficult. For all of us, emotional responsibility is something to work toward over a lifetime, while accepting that we are never going to be perfectly emotionally responsible.
The good news is that as you learn and practice emotional responsibility, you teach it to your children so that they learn it as a natural language. Every time you come home from work and stop yourself from engaging in emotionally irresponsible behavior, such as screaming about the dirty dishes in the sink (which in fact only bother you when you have had an especially difficult day at work), saying nothing but then seething in silent resentment, or making snide comments about ‘how nice it must be to have me as a maid,’ you are modeling and teaching emotional responsibility.
Every time you come home from work and say directly ‘Hi everyone, I love you all, but I am wound up and tired from work, so right now those dirty dishes are really bugging me. I am going to go out for a short walk to cool down, and then maybe we can all talk about family chores and obligations’ – you are modeling and teaching your children emotional responsibility.
Emotional responsibility is amazingly powerful. It lifts us out of the muddy cesspool of relationships that are filled with guilt, resentment, and unpredictable and scary outbursts of anger, where we feel stuck in unproductive and confusing conflicts. It brings our families to a place where it is emotionally safe for everyone, where there is respect for one another, and where problems have a chance to be resolved.