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Making Space for Feelings

Making Space for Feelings

Despite being raised in emotionally deprived homes, my husband and I forged a nurturing bond that sustains our family.

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My husband and I were both raised in homes that nurtured our physical needs, but not our emotional ones. We were not neglected; we were thoroughly middle class. I had ballet lessons, and drama lessons, and spent my summers at a country club. My husband studied piano, and went to boy scouts and summer camps.

Yet when we met, we recognized in each other a profound loneliness. It was the loneliness of being seen and not heard. It was the loneliness of never knowing what it meant to have a voice in the family.

The challenge in having been raised in this sort of family is that once your emotional needs have gone unacknowledged for so long, you begin to question whether you are entitled to have them. We both became intellectuals, academics who lived lives ruled by the mind rather than the heart.

We needed to learn how to move towards each other, rather than silently retreat into one of our many books.

After we married, we needed to learn how to move towards each other, rather than silently retreat into one of the many books that lined the walls of our home. We needed to learn how to say, “I need you now. Please close your book and pay attention to me for a moment.”

It wasn’t easy, and it didn’t come naturally. We read books that rabbis and therapists had written about how to have a good marriage, and for homework, we practiced the exercises they recommended. We wrote lists, and charts, and learned how to actively listen. We stumbled and fell as we strove to develop true intimacy. That was preferable to taking refuge behind the familiar walls of silence while pretending that we didn’t have emotional needs because we were too afraid to voice them. We eventually succeeded in forging a bond that could both nurture us and sustain a family of our own.

People often marvel at how expressive our children are. My four year old knows how to say, “Please don’t make me do this. It’s too scary for me.” His older sister can say, “You made me a booboo in my feelings when you said that, and even though I wasn’t crying with my eyes, I was crying in my heart.” Sometimes, I hear her say to her little brother. “Don’t cry. Use your words. Tell me what is wrong.”

The rule in our house is that there is always space for feelings, and while their feelings don’t determine our house rules, it is our responsibility as parents to recognize how our behaviors affect them.

My kids have clear boundaries that they know not to cross. They go to bed on time and do their homework even when they don’t feel like it. And they also know that we are here to listen, that they are assured a chance of being heard.

Sometimes it is my listening more than my answers that are truly an act of love for my children.

It is not easy to assume this extra responsibility of listening as well as teaching, of learning as well as guiding. But it's worth the extra effort. When my children go to bed, I use this time as I tuck them in to listen to their last fading thoughts about their day. I know who there friends are. I know who hurt their feelings. I know that sometimes it is hard to listen to a teacher who talks in a funny voice, and that the tendency to snicker at those times can be overwhelming.

Yet I also know that occasionally these random thoughts are chased away by more serious concerns, such as “Do you love me when I misbehave? Then why do you punish me?”

At those times, I believe it is my listening more than my answers that are truly an act of love for my children. I hope that one day my children will recognize the that each word and thought that they shared was heard, and held, and remembered, and became part of the fabric of our home.

Published: December 19, 2009


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Visitor Comments: 17

(17) Anonymous, April 6, 2014 4:21 PM

Wish I couldn't relate but I guess there is a reason for everything. I was much younger than everyone in my family so my little voice sometimes wasn't heard. If I did it over I'd teach my children at a younger age to have their own voice.
I'll look for an article on the other extreme one day, the kids that are too chuzpadik.

(16) sara, August 15, 2010 10:50 PM

very nice!

(15) Anonymous, January 7, 2010 9:00 PM

More inforamtion

Great article. would the author please suggest some books that she found most helpful.

(14) Miriam, December 27, 2009 2:47 AM

Ways to help children develop emotional intelligence

I went to a presentation given by Dr. Miriam Adahan this evening, outlining the contents of her "Tool Kit,": an actual box that is filled with original, helpful items such as an 'emotions ruler' to help children gauge the level of their pain or joy and special journals in which to write down the emotional/spiritual victories that we and our children achieve each day. Many people could benefit from using these and the other tools Dr.Adahan has developed, in order to make healthy space for emotions in their lives. I also hope the author of this piece will write a sequel, offering us her own tried and true techniques.

(13) Anonymous, December 27, 2009 2:41 AM

How wonderful that you triumphed over your upbringing

I am not that old but when I grew up adults were the ultimate authorities and you had little say in anything. I always listened to my son and took everything he said seriously. always responded to his fears and concerns too so he knew his feelings were valid. I never fobbed him off with "Just because I say so" or "you're just a child". I was extremely timid and still struggle to speak up for myself. My son has amazing self esteem and we get so many positive comments about him. The mothers who are jealous were the ones I overheard telling their kids, "Just because", "Don't be stupid", "Wipe that grin off your face" etc. Why is it necessary to speak like that to children? That said, we never let my son rule the roost like my cousin who proudly told people that her eight year old daughter decided where they would go on holiday every year!

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