A negative emotional state not only makes a child miserable, it can impact their very biology in a way that leads to lasting harm. One must be extremely attentive to not only emotions left by the event itself, BUT OF EMOTIONS BROUGHT ABOUT BY REACTIONS AND ATTITUDES TOWARD IT. For example, a parent who finds out her child was abused or otherwise mistreated and then models a response of anger and hatred is likely to cause her child a lot more lasting psychological harm than the abusive person she’s mad at, because she’s modeling a response that evokes destructive emotional states. These states will persist long after any particular event is over and done with. There are several destructive emotional states that you want to avoid, both in the experience itself and the response to it:
Anger generally comes from social hurt, and as such, our minds have a lot to do with its creation. If someone wrongs us, we proceed to assign them sinister intentions: We assume they did it on purpose, that they meant to hurt us, that they’re evil, that they knew what the outcomes would be before they acted, that they “chose” to act as they did (as opposed to acting impulsively or imperfectly on account of their own inbuilt quirks or unconscious desires, as we’re all prone to doing). We imagine them enjoying our pain, being out to get us, and in the process develop an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Naturally, thinking such thoughts will only fuel our anger, and pretty soon we’ve worked ourselves into a self-created destructive mindset. Such feelings, strong as they may be, are nowhere near accurate, as we discuss our book The Psychology of Healing.
Because of this, anger is never correct. No, not ever. It’s always a flawed, self-absorbed emotion that distorts our perception to a ridiculous degree. It shuts down our empathy and eliminates any attempt to see things from another person’s point of view. As psychologist Martin Seligman (1993, p. 126) notes, “an accurate description of the moral tone of red-hot anger is ‘self-righteous’ rather than righteous.” Biologically, anger was designed to make us aggressive in the short term in response to a threat; preparing us to act in case we needed to fight. It’s not a sign of right or wrong, good or bad, merely an indication that we feel threatened. In the real world, in modern times, it has little constructive use in our lives except as a signal that our feelings must be examined. It’s certainly not an emotion to judge by.
Anger is unhealthy for a multitude of reasons. For starters, it’s a negative, self-destructive emotion that makes whoever harbors it unhappy and miserable. As John Roger & Peter McWilliams (1991, p. 167) point out, “the irony is that when we punish another, we first punish ourselves. Who do you think feels all that hate we have for another? The other person? Seldom. Us? Always.” Anger and hatred makes a person sad, upset, and miserable. It elevates blood pressure, spikes stress levels, and consumes our every thought. It’s hard to think clearly or get anything done when angry. This can affect a child’s schooling and lead to depression or behavioral problems. Prolonged anger has also been shown to have numerous adverse effects on health. (See our book: Child Maltreatment, A Cross-Comparison)
Reacting with anger blocks reconciliation (and thus, blocks healing) while creating collateral damage. This collateral damage often sets off a new cycle of stress and conflict. (Retribution, retaliation, court dates, and reciprocal hostility that only deepens the hurt.) Furthermore, it deepens a child’s own guilt. As Rusk & Rusk (1988, p. 57) point out, “the human spirit thrives on compassion and respect; it withers without it. The well-being of our spirits requires that we treat others with warmth and consideration. It feels wrong to act maliciously, just as it feels wrong to be treated badly.” Injuring other people in response to a wrong they did does nothing more than cement each party in their hurt and suffering.
Anger pits a person’s mind against itself. When someone does something hurtful, anger usually leads us to form hostile perspectives and exaggerated beliefs about how horrible their trespass was. “I don’t get angry without a reason” a person tells themselves. “Therefore, I must have a right to be angry!” It’s this kind of self-absorption that traps a person with their destructive thoughts and beliefs. Anger tricks a person into using the reasoning areas of their brain to reinforce catastrophic thoughts rather than refute them. By attempting to justify their anger, they must continue to immerse themselves in the hurt, and so a person who reacts to adversity in such a manner will never get better – not until the anger subsides. Responding to adversity with anger also models an unhealthy response, one that will be carried over to all of the life issues a child encounters. If children learn they are supposed to seek retribution and retaliation (“justice”) anytime someone wrongs them or does something they don’t like, you’ve doomed them to a life of responding to adversity in a miserable way that will only create more conflict.
We can’t stress enough that there is no such thing as “righteous” anger. All anger and hatred is a self-destructive emotion, harmful to oneself and the others around you. It doesn’t matter how justified you believe your anger to be. Regardless of what someone did to you or your child, if you model anger in response you’re only doing more severe harm. (And, in such cases, we would be ‘justified’ for hating you on account of the harm you’re doing your child through amger. See how easy it is to “justify” hatred?) Modeling anger or hatred in response to an event is the worst thing you could do for your child. It will inhibit your child’s recovery, and in many cases cause them more long-term suffering than anything the person you’re mad at did. Events mean very little. Beliefs about events can matter an awful lot. Anger traps a child in destructive beliefs about an event, and is so debilitating that it can far exceed any potential abuse that they might endure.
Fear comes in several varieties: fear of physical danger, fear of social rejection, fear of abandonment, fear of the unknown, etc. It can be based on legitimate threats, or built entirely from our own thoughts. Fear has a tendency to jolt the mind’s imagination into some of its grandest creations. Our brains are naturally designed to dwell on what might get us, and so we’re often hard at work dreaming up all sorts of nightmare scenarios.
It’s not hard to see why fear is a negative emotion. It makes us scared, stressed, paranoid, distrustful, upset, and uncomfortable. It usually leads us into catastrophic interpretations, causing a child to form negative outlooks about life. Fear causes hyper-arousal, and bathes the mind in cortisol. As such, prolonged exposure to fearful situations is unhealthy, coming with all the adverse effects of chronic stress. Furthermore, fear inhibits play and often causes social withdrawal, further impeding a child’s development.
Fear can also be conditioned through the reaction shown by caretakers. (Gormly & Brodzinsky, 1993, p. 306) So it’s important for parents to make sure they aren’t vicariously conditioning unnecessary fears in their children. Following an adverse event, it’s important that any fears a child has be comforted and promptly addressed.
Shame is one of the most powerful emotions we have, and also one of the most destructive. Shame is distinct from guilt. While feeling guilty is a natural and healthy response to situations where we feel we have acted inappropriately or hurtfully, shame is a judgment not of one’s actions, but of their self-worth as a person.
It also frequently has nothing to do with right or wrong, but rather, the judgment of others. For example, most people have been conditioned to feel ashamed of nudity. Yet there’s not a bit of logic to this, only the fear that others might judge us. A child can feel ashamed over her red hair should her classmates tease her for it, but this doesn’t mean her negative feelings are justified. Shame can be brought about by any number of ridiculous, prejudicial, bigoted, idiotic ideas that people attempt to push on others. Shame works through conformity, not reason or thoughtful independent thinking. So it’s often a roadblock to healthy outcomes. In fact, a person can be scorned for doing the right thing. Shame has nothing to do with any legitimate code of conduct.
Despite it often being based on bogus logic, shame is also a powerful emotion, deeply rooted in evolutionary biology. At one point in time, being rejected by the group meant certain death. Shame, our warning against rejection, therefore has a strong life-death signal to it. It’s extremely uncomfortable and painful precisely because it’s designed to get our attention and spur us into action so that we avoid the potential danger that comes with rejection.
Like physical pain, shame injures a child. It attacks their self-esteem and leads to feelings of being unwanted, bad, or inadequate. In children it often leads to social withdrawal and depression, as well as antisocial behavior. Shame induces a stress response in the brain. In fact, research shows that cortisol levels spike the most and stay on the brain the longest when the source of stress is a social judgment against oneself, a.k.a. shame. (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004) Shame always breeds defensive attitudes, and does nothing to fix a situation. It merely makes a person feel bad.
Sadness, of course, is a negative emotion. It’s the counterweight to happiness, meant to spur us to remedy or escape a situation. Life comes with its ups and downs, and some sadness is an unfortunate part of everyday living. But when hurt over an event is ongoing, or when a child is exposed to repeated acts of hurtfulness, then this sadness can develop into despair. Like PTSD, despair arises out of a breakdown in a child’s ability to cope with adversity, either through repeated frustrations, flawed thinking, or a lack of comforting. Unlike day to day sadness, despair induces a negative outlook on life in general.
Despair leaves a child with feelings of hopelessness, fear, insecurity, and other negative feelings. It distorts one’s perspective not just to the activating event(s), but all aspects of life. Left unchecked, this sadness can morph into depression or other serious issues.