Name it to Tame it

“Then she accused me of being the bully!” Sandro was beginning to rant. His face was red and his eyes were moist. His ex-partner had just denied him access to their 6-year-old son. I asked him how he felt. “Sh*t!” He replied. “But what kind of sh*t”, I queried. He looked at me with blank confusion.

Lisa Starr and her team of the University of Rochester recently conducted a study on teenagers and depression. She recruited 233 boys and girls aged between 14 and 17. These participants completed a questionnaire on their smartphones 4 times a day for seven days. The questionnaire asked them to describe their current mood using a list of 12 negative mood words and 5 positive words.

Eighteen months later the same group were assessed for depression and for whether stressful life events had occurred in the intervening period. Lisa found that teenagers who were poor at differentiating between different negative emotions at the initial stage were more likely to have become depressed following exposure to stressful life events. This study backed up other research on adults that indicated that low Negative Emotion Differentiation (low NED) is a risk factor for depression.

Why might low NED be a problem? Maybe because our emotions communicate useful information. All our emotions, positive and negative, serve a purpose. Anxiety helps us avoid dangers and risks. Anger helps us protect and defend ourselves and our loved ones. Sadness helps us seek comfort and safety when faced with loss or defeat. Correctly identifying the emotion helps us to correctly identify underlying the need. When we know what we need we’re better able to get it.

Emotional Intelligence

Naming emotions also gives us a sense of control. Psychiatrist, Dan Siegal, recommends coaching kids to better be able to label their emotions. “name it to tame it” he recommends. Being able to accurately name emotions and understand their function helps kids to feel more in control, and also helps parents to better understand and respond to their kids’ needs.

Sometimes understanding emotions can be hard. I coached Sandro in being better able to recognise and describe his emotions. He came to realise that when he was talking to his ex-partner, he felt a range of emotions:

Fear – “I’m about to lose my son!”

Sadness – “I miss him”

Anger – “How dare she call me a bully! She’s the one with the all the power here”

Guilt – “I shouldn’t have let things get this bad”

Being able to deconstruct his emotional experience helped Sandro to remain better in control of his emotions when talking with his partner. He spoke in a more respectful and mature manner. Even though he had less conflict, Sandro found that he got his needs met more often due to his newfound emotional intelligence.

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