You’re Not the Boss of ME!: The Five Ways Adults Communicate Like Children and the VOICE That Can Help Fix Them
Children are a wonder: one moment kind and gentle and then pointedly hurtful the next. Go to any elementary school yard and the refrain of “I’m not going to be your friend” can be heard at least a few times. As children, we learn from our families how to navigate the social waters around us: the cues, the facial expressions, and the tones of voice. But we also learn how to work our relational way through the socialization schoolyard. Problems arise when our families lack emotionally mature ways of operating that give us the much needed foundation of how to interact in future relationships. When young, having not developed the parts of our brain that can articulate emotionally laden interpretations, we can take others actions as being an attack and respond by closing off or going ‘big’. As a child we may be able to get away with such behavior, but as adults there is a bit more expected from us. Real trouble comes when we look like adults but still act in childish ways. The following are five ways in which we as adults act like emotional children, they provide a key in how to challenge and combat the dysfunctional ways we tend to operate.
1. Limited Vocabulary:
Research tells us that we have the full range of emotions around the age of five. What we lack, however, is an adequate way of articulating and expressing our emotions (Gail 2016). Walk into any primary or secondary grade classroom and it’s a safe bet that there is a host of vocabulary words posted so the teacher can convey the subject matter to her students. We also understand that any career field and workplace has a lingua franca shared and understood by its employees. Language helps us convey concepts and ideas that would otherwise take drawn out and confusing explanations. I could tell you that when you are driving and come upon a pole that extends out over the street, containing an upright rectangular box with red, green, and yellow lights you must stop at the red light; or I can just say there is a “stop light”—making the lengthy explanation unneeded.
So it is with expressing our emotions. As both children and adults, when we get emotional, trying to explain how we feel can seem like a herculean task. If we have not learned to articulate and express our emotions in mature ways then we can feel trapped by what I call counterfeit emotions—emotions that we feel in the moment but may not be completely accurate. We all have a range of emotions but we do not all know how to pinpoint and name what they are; as such, hurt, sadness, and loneliness can feel like anger; excitement, uncertainty, and curiosity can feel like fear; and compassion, empathy, and understanding can feel like guilt or shame—just to point out a few.
With limited ways to express how we feel we are only left with the emotions of the moment; therefore, If I feel angry I will speak the language of anger and fear, If I only understand shame then I will move, and be moved by, the language of guilt and shame. This then leaves me communicating in a passive, passive-aggressive, or aggressive manner—which can be a certain way toward unhealthiness.
The Fix: Developing (V)ocabulary:
When I learn the vocabulary of how I am feeling (by really digging in and examining what first feelings I have) I can develop the words to share what is going on inside and help those across from me hear what I am feeling as well—which is assertive communication (US Federal News Service 2012). Therapists will often give clients lists of feelings and ask them to write down what they are really feeling in the moment vs. how they usually react in the moment—which can lead to a wide spectrum of feelings that may have been long avoided or unarticulated. The vocabulary of emotion gives us a ready way to connect with ourselves and others when tempers flare and we want to act like children.
2. Limited Perspective
Jean Piaget, the famous developmental psychologist, pointed out the stage of maturity he called the preoperational stage in which children tend to operate at a highly egocentric capacity (Breedlove 2015)—and some never move on! Expanding our perspective comes with maturity and practice. Perspective can operate at two levels—one obvious and the other more sophisticated: The first understands where someone else might be coming from. As children, when we lack ways to articulate and communicate how we feel we are left with only our raw emotions to understand others and the world around us. When the emotions are high we can get into that “fight or flight” mode in our head which then leads to self-preservation as the primary directive—which is actually one of the hallmarks of being a child (or immaturity). Whereas it’s true some children can seem very giving and self-sacrificing, even this can be a means of self-protection.
As we move into the teenage years, our sense of the world, and it’s orbit around me is compounded with the development of the amygdala—that area of our brain that deals with emotions and relating to others. It is during these adolescent years that a heightened sense and awareness of ourselves goes into overdrive; as such, what those in the psychological community call the “imaginary audience” (that sense that everyone is watching us and actually cares about what we are doing!) can be the main force in how we act as bigger children (Galanaki 2012). Take this perspective into adulthood and we are left with only seeing issues from our point of view. This limited perspective is all about how it makes us feel, and react, and think, and so on. It is for this reason we so often fight to be understood rather than fight to understand (which is a huge hang-up when we are in disagreement with another). What can be difficult is actually getting out of our own moment and getting into the head and heart of another—after all, I’m to worried about me to consider you! In these times it is essential to consider that everyone walking the street has hopes, fears, worries, stresses, heartbreaks and hang-ups that drive their day.
The second level of perspective taking (the more sophisticated side) rests in realizing others make mistakes. As children we judge at face value—seeing someone’s behavior or actions and making up stories about what they meant to do to us (more on that later). I have mentioned this before but a youth pastor of mine once said, “We judge others by their actions and we judge ourselves by our intentions”. Because children’s emotional thermostat can continually run hot, it’s very difficult to think, “hmm, I wonder if they meant that when they said…” At the same time, we as grown children continually want to be let off the hook for the stuff we didn’t mean that resulted in reactions we didn’t expect. If you are involved in any service industry you have seen how grown adults can treat others: they can be demanding, insensitive, selfish and unregulated—all stemming from a lack of understanding, empathy and perspective—which is pretty childish.
The Fix? (O)thers Perspective:
One of the surest ways to gain the perspective of another is to ask questions. Without honest inquiry we are left with making up our own story in our heads (from our perspective!). If we think or feel a certain way we could ask of the other, “I am thinking ________, is that what you meant?” or, “you sound upset, are you okay?” and then be prepared for the answer (not what we assume to be the answer); remember, we know what our perspective is, the question here is: What is theirs?
3. Limited Control
One of the great things about children is the rawness of their emotions. I remember when my daughter was about 18 months old (she is 21 now), she was completely overcome at the passing of a fire truck on a code three run. As the sirens went blaring she watched in frozen consternation with what must have been a holistic fright. After the engine passed she let out a wail and ran into my arms, looking for me to help regulate her. This extreme in emotional reaction is common to those who are young and have not learned to mitigate how intense feelings can be sometimes—and so must look to their parents to help them do so (Kopp 1989). In the same way, adults who are unregulated can ‘blow the doors off the hinges’ in regards to their feelings. In some cases emotions can be a type of drug—often turned to and seldom put aside. In this way we can tend to park on our limited vocabulary and perspective by binging on our hurt, anger, fear etc. Because these emotions can carry a type of intoxication we can find ourselves not wanting to let them go because they feel so right. Think of the angry customer at the checkout line or the bitter divorce’. We may think, “You have wronged me and I will NEVER forgive you”—all emotion and totally extreme.
Another angle to this is how some have responded in the opposite direction to such intensity. Some have grown up with such emotional dysregulation that they chose the opposite tack—cutting themselves off from their feelings—which is why therapists will often see couples who work in such extremes, one unregulated, the other cut off. This does not lessen the fact that there is wrong in this world (which there will always be) but it does say much about how we respond to such wrong—unregulated and extreme, stuffed and cut off, or managed and appropriately directed.
When we operate to such extremes we can find the ‘fixes’ we try and implement just make the problem worse. If I do not regulate myself and immediately fly off the handle, verbally spewing all that is in me in the name of sharing my feelings, I may say things I later come to fully regret. On the other hand, if I am cut-off emotionally and say I am feeling nothing (in order to make the situation ‘go away’) then nothing will get resolved and I may grow to be bitter and resentful (and unable to feel).
The Fix? (I)nternal Regulation:
Emotions are good and needed, but to let them go wild can damage those around you. Once again, emotions are good and needed, but to ignore and stuff them can damage us inside. It is important to ask ourselves, “Why am I getting so angry and emotional” or, “Why am I so numb? “When was the last time I felt something?” Emotional regulation comes in many forms but the first step is healthy internal dialogue. A step outside the immediate intensity of the situation may help to calm us down; or, really digging in to something we know we should have some feeling over can help us to feel again.
4. Limited Challenge
This area of limited challenge can prove tricky. First, per Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, children tend to base who they are on what others say about them, parents and loved ones. Next, they will often take on the language and emotional tenor of the homes of upbringing. But something happens in the adolescent years that shifts the search for identity from “Who do you say I am” to “Who am I, really?” In these years children (adolescent children) now carry around their family messages of who they are but are also forming internal, autonomous, messages of who they are and looking to peers for support (Breedlove 2015). It is for this reason teens can often get an attitude, challenging all around them but not challenging themselves. And this can be paradoxical, for on the one hand they shun the family that has long known them, yet on the other they wholeheartedly adopt every statement and fad from their social set—not bothering to question or critique. So it stands to reason that children this age can have a limited ability to challenge what they are thinking while at the same time regularly challenging those around them. This can prove especially true among teenage males as they act without thinking, often leading to impulsive and dangerous behavior.
When we as adults do not challenge our own thoughts and beliefs we can respond in emotionally unhealthy ways. So it is with communication, when we fully rely on our own interpretations, not questioning our scripts and beliefs about our internal, relational, or global dialogue, then we can leap to some pretty outrageous assumptions. Even if we are the type to take on the blame for other’s behaviors around us we are not challenging our own thoughts in the matter as to why we feel we are always to blame.
The Fix? (C)hallenging Our Beliefs:
We all have beliefs we carry around with us that inform the way we interact with ourselves, others, and the world in general. These beliefs can have both strengths and weaknesses. If we march about never questioning the weaknesses of such beliefs then we are in for some communication frustration. One example of a personal belief is operating in ideals. Ideals carry with them, “What if?”, “If only”, and “Should” scripts—these are great for dreaming (a strength!) but can be destructive for communication when our expectations are not met. In my practice I assess for the top personal, relational and external beliefs with the PRE Beliefs Inventory so awareness can lead to healthy challenging.
5. Limited Boundaries:
As children, we really don’t have very fixed boundaries, and for good reason—we need people to take care of us. As we grow we learn how to act from our parents—often watching for their reactions to certain situations which further cement our relying on others to inform our mood and take care of us. As time passes we eventually achieve some skill in operating on our own. As we continue to grow older we become increasingly more autonomous leading to eventual separation sometime in late adolescence. A healthy family dynamic allows for the change in parent/child relationship to move from dependent to independent; however, many families grow up either not recognizing and/or not accepting this long and gradual transition. Families that operate on an economy of emotional manipulation, fear, anger, and shame have a difficult time producing children that understand the value of where they stop and others start. This can range from overt to covert: For example, the mother with fear and control issues may, in subtle ways, use emotional pleas to get her children to do what she asks. The children may then grow to be adults that use language such as, “If you really loved me you would…” Many recognized co-dependents often take part in unhealthy communications and behaviors as a means of assuaging long held fears and functions. As authors John Townsend and Henry Cloud state in their book, Boundaries In Marriage, there are issues such as cause and effect, responsibility, power, and respect that surround our behaviors and communication toward others (Cloud & Townsend 1999). If we are unaware of our own boundaries and others (as children tend to be) then we are in for some violations that can have us acting like children.
The Fix? (E)stablishing Boundaries:
Recognize that others are not responsible for our feelings and cannot deliver us from them. Accepting that people do and say hurtful things and we cannot control them, we can only control ourselves. We can also be aware of where we stop and others start. We may want to talk over or shout down another because we don’t like what they say. In this case we must practice internal and external boundaries—internal being our internal regulation and external relating to not allowing others to coerce or control us. Remember, this does not mean saying whatever hurtful thing that comes to mind (Remember the first four steps) but it can mean either standing up for ourselves by not letting others run us or recognizing how we may tend to try and run others. Also be aware of the coercion, manipulation, and emotional arm twisting we may employ and look to avoid such means. Remember not to assume what others need and want but ask and be open to the answers you receive.
Changing the way we have long communicated (either in our heads or toward others) takes hard and persistent work—after all, we have grown skilled in our childish behaviors. A good question to ask ourselves may be, “Is this way really helping me?” or, “Is there a better way to communicate.” Remembering to use our VOICE can be the start of a better operating system. If you want a change and hope to move forward, finding a good therapist can help you do just that. If you would like to contact me you can leave a comment on my facebook page Chris Oneth LMFT or, to see my other posts visit my blog at www.chrisoneth.net.
Chris Oneth LMFT
Downey Park Counseling Associates
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