The Family that Feels Together Grows Together

Managing Feelings in Family Life

by Linda Kondracki

In recovery we learn that "all my feelings are okay." Learning to manage our own responses to feelings like anger and hurt is hard enough. Learning to manage feelings is our families can seem overwhelming. How do we teach our children to handle their feelings in healthy ways? The following guidelines can help you make your family a place that models healthy ways of owning and expressing all your feelings.
Guideline #1: All family members have a right to feel their feelings.
If we grew up with lots of messages that denied us our feelings, we may unknowingly be hooked into a communication style that tells others to block or bury their feelings. The first step in managing feelings in family life is to listen to, and affirm each other's feelings. Here's an example:

No: "Why are you crying? It's just a goldfish! We'll buy another one!
Yes: "It hurts alot to lose a pet, doesn't it? Do you want me to help you bury it?"

Guideline #2: Feelings must be expressed within certain boundaries.
To say that "all your feelings are okay," is NOT giving permission for family members to engage in a "feelings free-for-all." Expressing our feelings in ways that are self-destructive, harms someone else or damages property are never okay. The activity box contains directions to help you set rules for the expression of feelings in your family. Notice that none of these rules denies anyone his or her feelings. They are simply management tools that can help family members express their feelings in healthy ways.

Guideline #3: All family members can own what they are feeling.
Owning a feeling means we are "in charge" of that feeling and will assume responsibility for managing it. Essentially, this means learning a communication style that uses "I" statements to own a feeling, plus a clear statement of what the speaker needs or wants from the other person:

No: Why do you guys always bombard me with what you want as soon as I walk in the door? Do any of you ever once think about anyone but yourselves? I'm not going to do another thing for you until you stop being so selfish!

Yes: Work was really stressful today and I'm beat. I need a half hour to myself before answering those questions and looking at your papers. Please find something else to do and we'll talk in a little while.

Notice that the accusatory "you" words shifts the responsibility for a feeling to another family member. The second response uses an "I" statement to claim ownership of a feeling and then makes a clear request of the other person.

Guideline #4: Understand emotional temperature and timing.
When tempers are hot is probably not the best time to give lectures or try to talk things out. When hurt and grief are new is definitely not an appropriate time to talk about replacing what was lost or telling jokes to lighten the mood. Sometimes the best thing to do is allow time for emotional temperatures to cool and hurts to begin to heal before talking things out. Just remember that it is never too late - in minutes, hours, days, even years - to come back to a subject to talk it through and bring closure.

One of the best ways for family members to learn to manage their feelings in healthy ways is to set guidelines for all family members to follow. Begin by writing across the top of a poster board: "Expressing Feelings in Our Family." Then talk about the following:

  • What are some ways we express feelings in our family that cause us problems? Be specific - hitting or throwing things, pouting, name calling, etc.
  • How can we express our feelings without being hurtful or disrespectful to others?

As you think of ideas, write them down in the form of family rules. Examples:

  • When we are angry, we may go to our rooms and pound our pillows or go to the garage and use the punching bag. We may not break anything or pound someone else.
  • When we are sad we may cry, ask to be held, or go to our rooms to be alone for awhile. We may not pretend to be sick or hide somewhere without telling someone where we are.
  • When there is a conflict between family members, they will work it out without calling each other names or hitting each other.

NOTE: The material in this column was taken from Linda's book, All My Feelings Are Okay, an interactive family guide using stories, games, Bible studies and more to help families identify and express their feelings. Ask for it in your local Christian bookstore.

Go to more Articles by Linda Kondracki in STEPS Magazine.

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