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Are we teaching children that suppressing emotions is ok?

Children have a beautiful ability to express themselves fully and authentically until they learn that most of the time this is not acceptable. As adults, we damage our children because we often unconsciously condition them to suppress their emotions.

When our newborn begins to cry for the first time, we are utterly overjoyed. The sound of aliveness, a successful completion from conception to birth. Our first opportunity to offer comfort and love. Our vow is to be the best parent that we can be for them.

Fast forward to the ‘terrible two’s’ and we’re tired and psychologically set ourselves to battle the supermarket aisles with a little one who is enthralled by the bright colours and shiny new things. They reach out to grab and explore…. and most of the time we encourage them to.

Unless we are depleted. Then it becomes ‘don’t touch that‘, ‘no- you can’t have that, ‘stop crying‘, ‘ be quiet‘ , ‘be a good girl/boy for mummy/daddy‘.

What does our child learn from this?

That to express emotion is sometimes good, but a lot of the time not good. Our child learns very quickly that on some occasions they are chastised for expressing their authentic emotion. So they learn that suppressing their emotions leads to non-confrontation with their parents. Children want to please their parents. But at what cost?

Did you know that by 9 months of age a baby understands the word ‘no’? So from a very young age, our children are conditioned to behave in certain ways based on their caregivers’ perception of what is allowed and not allowed, what is safe, and not safe, what is acceptable and not acceptable.

And why is this so important for us growing up and becoming adults?

“Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.”


By the time we are into our childhood, we have already been conditioned and take on certain beliefs as to how the world works. We model our primary caregivers, we develop fears some of which may be unfounded and are not of our own making.

Our coping mechanisms- rather than being taught to express them in healthy and constructive ways- are suppressed.  We learn to stay quiet, not make a fuss, we’re told not to brag about ourselves and if we do, we’re perceived as ‘know it all’s’.

So this heady mixture of suppression and chastisement over our childhood catapults us into adulthood with very few healthy and successful coping mechanisms.

By default, we are ‘faulty’. We grow up and we repeat the childhood patterns that we’ve learned. We just become more sophisticated at it.

You may have come across the story of a professor in a classroom with an empty glass jar. He asked his students to fill the jar with golf balls that represented all the key life moments that students experienced. He then asked them if the glass was full and was told no, there was still space. He asked them to put in small pebbles to represent the little daily niggles that stressed and upset them. The students did so, and they recognised that the glass still had space.

The students were then asked to put in the sand which represented all the emotions over their lives that were painful, those that they could not let go of, and that they held onto in the form of resentment, frustration, feeling unloved, and unworthy. The professor asked them to fill the jar.

When the jar was completely full, he turned to them all and asked them if all the emotions represented by the sand had now been placed in the jar. Many students said no, there was still much more to go in, but there was no room left but they stopped because the jar would overflow and be un-contained, and all the contents of the jar would be all over the place.

At that moment the professor asked them to look at the jar as their lives. He asked them to consider all the suppressed emotions that hadn’t been dealt with, that hadn’t been expressed and explored, and he asked them if it was healthy for an individual to carry this and allow it to overflow in such a way that it was detrimental not only to the student but everyone around them.

We are jars. We are vessels. We fill ourselves up with emotions and if we haven’t been taught and learned as a child to express these emotions in healthy ways, we find in later life they spill over with such force that we become detrimental to our own wellbeing. In a world where we see ‘be happy’, ‘think positive’, ‘don’t be negative’ as our daily mantras, we forget that if we do not work through our anger, frustration, pain, and fear, all we are doing is filling ourselves up with a level of toxicity that damages us more than any situation can and no ‘positive’ mantra is going to solve the problem.

So should we ‘suck it up, buttercup’ and continue the ancestral pattern of suppressing emotions?


The more we learn how to stop suppressing emotions and begin to express ourselves in healthy ways, we can clear out our jar and re-fill it with all the wonderful experiences that bring us happiness, joy, fun, love, and excitement. Once the anger and frustration, the pain, and loss is expressed constructively, the healing and release can begin.

We can do this in a number of ways:

  • We can reflect on the repeating situations we’ve experienced over our lives and explore whether it is a repeating childhood pattern. When we acknowledge it, we can begin to change it.
  • We can be more conscious of the choices we are currently making and reflect on whether these are in our best interests and move us forward or keep us stuck in the same patterns.
  • We can communicate better by sharing our experiences with like-minded people who can help us see our patterns and show us how they show up in our lives.
  • We can take time to get to know ourselves; our strengths and weaknesses, our fears, our aspirations. We can use journalling or group therapy or forums. There are so many resources available to us now.
  • We can learn to take some time out for self -care . Even 5 mins a day has a huge beneficial effect on our ability to look after ourselves first. When we look after ourselves first, we can then help others . It’s the ‘oxygen-mask-over-your-face -first-before-you-help-others-when-the-plane-is-going-down’ story!
  • We can make the decision to take the next step away from our old patterns towards our new healthy ones.
  • We can be more conscious of our own parenting and where we can change our negative childhood patterns so as not to pass them on to our children.
  • We can help our children express themselves in a way that helps them value themselves so that as they move into adulthood, they are already able to use self-care mechanisms and look after their own wellbeing as well as help others.

So next time you feel angry, sad, depressed, frustrated, lost, alone allow yourself some time to explore it- what was triggered within you? How did it make you feel? When was the last time you felt this emotion? Did it dredge up old emotions from childhood, from your teen years, from your adult years? Where are you still suppressing emotions and how is that affecting you? Are you a person who bottles things up? Take a look at this article which shows you why this is not a good strategy for your well-being.

I’d love to hear your comments on this post, so please let me know your thoughts.

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