Healthy parent / healthy child part 2: Emotional responsibility |

Healthy parent / healthy child part 2: Emotional responsibility

Danielle B. Grossman
Special to the Sun

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. and#8212; While it is important to recognize parents might do everything they can to be good parents and still have a child fall into unhealthy behaviors, it is also important for parents to understand one powerful aspect of and#8220;doing everything possibleand#8221; involves working on your own set of psychological skills and modeling those skills for your child. One such skill is emotional responsibility.

When most of us think about teaching children about responsibility, we think about lessons like teaching them to show up on time, complete schoolwork or chores, and spend money within their means. These are all valuable. What we often forget to consider, however, is emotional responsibility.

Emotional responsibility means taking responsibility for learning to identify and effectively deal with our emotions so we are able to make conscious choices about how we respond to emotionally triggering situations. While we might not have the ability to change our feelings, we do have the power to choose our behaviors. With skills to deal honestly and directly with how we feel, we can navigate life and relationships by making choices based in both emotions and in clear reasoning.

Children who learn emotional responsibility are more connected to their feelings and know strategies for dealing productively with emotional situations. They are therefore less vulnerable to impulsivity, less vulnerable to unstable and unhealthy relationships, and less prone to use of drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, etc., as a way to act out or numb their feelings. They also are better able to make choices that reflect their true needs and preferences, which builds self-esteem and strength.

If we want to model emotional responsibility for our children, we must take responsibility for the way we deal with situations, even if we believe that someone else is the cause of our feelings. For example, when we are emotionally responsible, we do not blame our decision to aggressively tail-gait a car the whole way to Reno on the fact that he cut us off. We take responsibility for our own behavior no matter how angry we are, and regardless of whether the other person is wrong for cutting us off.

In order to be emotionally responsible, we must first slow down our reaction time. This can be extremely hard. If we have spent years reacting to every conflict or challenge as if it were an emergency, our physiology is set up for immediate and extreme survival reactions. Slowing down when it is not an emergency may involve un-learning a lifetime of response patterns. We then must take space to identify our feelings. This may be confusing and strange if we are not accustomed to delving into the realm of our emotions.

Once we are able to slow down and identify our feelings, we need to practice reflecting on the reason for our emotions. Is our rage really being caused by the car cutting us off, or is it actually a combination of factors, such as our pain from a sore back, our worries about money, and our frustration with our failure to leave early enough to get to Reno on time? As we sort through our feelings, we may recognize the intensity of our reaction to the current situation does not match the reality of the situation, and that we are dumping our feelings where they do not belong.

After determining what we are feeling, and whether it is truly about the current situation or not, we will need to have a variety of options for how to respond. Developing this repertoire of productive ways to respond when we are upset with a situation is yet another challenge of emotional responsibility.

Once we are calmer, and thinking clearly, we can make a choice. In the case of a car cutting us off, maybe we decide, yes, I want to tail-gait, or no, I want to take a few deep breaths and back off. Either way, we are now taking responsibility for how we are choosing to behave.

For those of us who were never taught about emotional responsibility as children, learning this skill can feel like learning a completely new language. For those who are struggling with anxiety, depression, or addiction, taking emotional responsibility may mean seeking the aid of psychiatric treatment. For all of us, emotional responsibility is something to work toward over a lifetime, with whatever social or professional support we can find, while accepting we are never going to be perfectly emotionally responsible all the time.

The good news is as you learn and practice emotional responsibility, you teach it to your children so they learn it as a natural language. For example, 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 about the dishes but then seething in silent resentment, or making snide comments about and#8220;how nice it must be to have me as a maid,and#8221; you are modeling and teaching emotional responsibility.

Every time you come home from work and say directly, and#8220;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,and#8221; you are modeling and teaching your children emotional responsibility.

Emotional responsibility is amazingly powerful. It has the potential to lift 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 conflicts. It can help to bring 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.

and#8212; Danielle B. Grossman, California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, specializes in relationships, loss, codependence, and addiction. She consults by phone for mental health professionals nationally. Contact her at 530-470-2233 or

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