In terms of emotional oversimplification, children rarely learn to look below the surface of the most salient emotions to understand how emotions such as anger, sarcasm, or arrogance may be triggered by other emotions. More simply, they are not taught to do this. Also, because children are learning a "new" language (English) the do not know many of the words. They tend to confuse the meanings of emotions, which often results in additional difficulty with communication of emotions. Relative to manipulation of emotions, children understand, at some level, how they feel when someone says to them, "I am angry at you." They often feel guilty, fearful and shameful and understand through trial and error, in the least, that they are supposed to respond in some way to try to correct the situation.
When children begin to understand their feelings and how other people may manipulate their feelings, they often want to try the things on others that have been done to them. It's like playing with a new toy. When they begin to try to play the "I am angry at you" game with others, they are expecting that the person they showed anger toward will feel guilty and respond to correct the situation. Young children may play this game through showing temper tantrums, "the silent treatment" and even by communicating their feelings directly ("I hate you. You are a mean mommy."). Unknowingly, many parents do respond to these tactics, further increasing the likelihood that children are going to try this with others, not only to find that it doesn’t work but they may receive harsh reactions from some. Do we and our children recognize when we are playing the game? Many times, no.
When parents and others respond harshly to children’s guilt-provoking statements, the child is beginning to learn about their power and often questions why someone else has the right to do that to them when they apparently do not. These types of interactions are formative events in children’s struggles for power and can be the source of much confusion, conflict and resentment throughout their lives.
To provide a sample interaction, Billy is playing with a friend, and his mother tells him that it is time for his nap and his friend will have to go home. He does not want to take a nap and begins to resist. He starts to cry, and as his mother picks him up Billy yells, "I am mad at you. I don’t like you." His mother then tells him, "You have no right to talk to me like that. I am your mother." Just the day before when Billy wouldn’t go to his room when told to, his mother said, "I don’t like you when you don’t listen, I am very angry at you." Between the two incidents, Billy is not able to understand the difference between what he is supposed to say and what his parent is allowed to say because they are the parent (Is there a double standard here?). Billy only wants to get what he wants. He knew that what his mother said to him the day before resulted in him feeling fear, guilt and shame, which affected his behavior, and he was only wanting to do the same toward his mother. The result of the interactions and statements made by the mother is that Billy feels confusion, misunderstood, and unfairly treated.
You're making me so very angry…
An example of another type of inaccurate emotional statement to examine is, "You are making me angry" (sad, confused…). When this statement is made, it is literally telling the other person that we have given them the power to "make" us feel something. The purpose of statements such as this are also often meant to evoke a feeling of guilt, blame, or responsibility in others, or to evoke a feeling of intimidation and warn the other party that if we react to what they said, our reaction is their fault. This statement furthermore allows us to not take responsibility for our reactions and "makes" it easier for us to play a victim role. If we react to them, we feel justified in stating that our reaction to their statement was only to protect ourselves. It is in our best interest to accept our power and understand our emotions so that we can take responsibility for our emotions and actions.
What I try to help others to recognize is that we have the power to choose to feel what we want to feel. Furthermore, we have the power and choice to communicate our emotions more accurately. Other people can say what they wish, and some of what they say may evoke feelings within us, but it is always within our power to feel what we want or choose to feel. It is in our best interest to recognize more accurately what we are feeling so we can choose to react in a manner that is respectful to all. It is integral to own our ability to recognize that no one can take our power away from us, unless we choose to give it away.
It is important to understand that if there are others trying to take our power, it is almost always because they feel vulnerable or threatened in some way. We can choose to manipulate their vulnerability to externally promote our own sense of power, or we can understand what they are feeling and respond in a manner that is respectful to us. Depending on the situation, anger and rage may be our best emotion to react with, but those events are rare. One has to use their power to choose to feel their own emotions wisely, because it is easy to use defenses such as rationalization and denial to avoid feeling our emotions or manipulate the emotions that others may be trying to "make us feel". We also may choose to manipulate their emotions in return when we feel that they have manipulated ours.
Ch Ch Ch Changes
In order to begin changing the manner in which we communicate to others, we first have to be willing to listen to what we are saying. It is very easy to rationalize and say, "It doesn't matter how I say things, others will know what I mean." That statement is often hiding the fear that it is too hard to change, and "What will I feel if I realize that others have felt hurt by the way I communicated feelings?" Our likely internal emotional response is guilt, shame, frustration, sadness, regret, and others, as well as anger toward ourselves.
As you may decide to change your language patterns, it is important to understand that it is like changing a habit. Habits form over time, and it takes time to develop new habits. It is in our best interest to allow ourselves the freedom to make mistakes in order to see where we need to improve our behaviors. As we realize the various inaccuracies in our communication, it allows us to recognize inaccuracies in our belief systems, since what we say is an indication of what we believe. We owe it to ourselves to be aware of our communication and how it affects our own emotions, as well as how it affects the emotions of others, especially those we love.
About the author:
Erik Fisher, PhD
, aka Dr. E…, is a licensed psychologist and author who has been featured on NBC, CBS, FOX and CNN. Visit him at
to learn more about his books "The Art of Empowered Parenting" and "The Art of Managing Everyday Conflict or to check out his blog. Permission granted for use on DrLaura.com.