5 signs you didn’t feel safe expressing your emotions as a child

I’ve been meaning to read American actress Geena Davis’ book, Dying of Politeness: A Memoir which came out in 2022. Growing up, I loved A League of Their Own as well as Thelma and Louise. 

In an interview with UK’s Loose Women, Davis talked about how she grew up in a family that prized politeness to the point of “having no needs”. 

That family principle so to speak had a domino effect on Davis in adulthood: she spent decades of her life minimizing herself so as to avoid inconveniencing anyone else. 

In the interview, Davis said she didn’t feel empowered as a woman until she actually met her co-star in Thelma and Louise, Susan Sarandon. 

When Davis had three children, she decided was going to follow Sarandon’s advice and show her kids how to feel empowered themselves, instead of the way that she was raised.

“I think a lot [showing your kids how to feel empowered] is modeling,” Davis said. “I picked up more from the way my parents modeled their behavior than them telling me how to be.”

She continued:

“I’m just really grateful I had children in my 40s, and I wanted to wait…I thought, I’ll be more evolved the longer I wait because I did have a sense that I wasn’t. I didn’t have a lot of self-esteem I guess…But I was really determined that my kids would have self esteem.”

Many children didn’t feel safe or comfortable expressing their emotions growing up. Maybe they grew up with the thinking, like Davis, that emotions were something to “keep a lid on” and that “being nice” was paramount, no matter how you felt inside. 

Here are five signs that you might not have felt safe expressing your own emotions as a child.

1) Expressing emotions was equated as “wrong”

We know that the reason why many men have difficulty showing their emotions is because they were told to “man up” as children. Crying was considered a weakness, or something that girls or “babies” did. So they were shamed for it. 

But many girls are also shamed for their feelings as well. 

“I get sad remembering how I was scolded for my emotional behavior as a child,” writes this woman on Reddit.

“My dad especially did not understand or accept my outbursts. I would have rage fits and he would say things like: ‘What man will be able to live with you when you are a grown up?’”

This woman says that she would also get anxiety from decision paralysis when picking out toys. Her parents misinterpreted her anxiety attacks as being ungrateful and would scold her for it. 

“I love my parents and I realize that having an undiagnosed child must have been difficult,” she writes.

“They understand my diagnosis today but in many ways it’s just too late: I feel like I am still very much out of touch with my emotions because there wasn’t any room for them when I was a child. I am always ashamed by any emotion that is not controlled.”

2) You feel physical pain anytime you’re emotionally stressed 

You might even suspect that your physical pain as a child was a symptom of repressed emotional pain. 

Children who constantly experienced pain—in the form of fevers, knots in their stomach, and other ailments—might have had an emotionally driven reason behind it, says the team at SplashLearn

Psychological stress preceded physical pain symptoms, says the authors of a study at the National Library of Medicine in the United States. 

The children studied were at times not able to verbalize their distress, which was revealed with the help of Children’s Apperception Test (C.A.T.). 

“They mainly had anxieties about loss of love or disapproval by parents, and also fear of harm or injury. They used defense mechanisms like denial, reaction formation, and repression, which were ineffective in handling overwhelming anxiety.”

The authors of the study added:“Most of these children had either above average or borderline intelligence. Somatic expression of emotional needs and fears in these children was managed effectively by supportive therapy and antidepressant drugs.”

In adulthood, you might still get headaches, stomach cramps, and other ailments any time you’re emotionally stressed about something. 

pic2360 5 signs you didn’t feel safe expressing your emotions as a child

3) Any emotional needs were considered bothersome, or even a burden

Sometimes parents minimize their child’s feelings without intending to, says Amy Morin, LCSW

They might say things like: “There’s no need to get that upset,” or “It’s not a big deal. I don’t know why you’re behaving that way.”

These kinds of statements teach a child that their emotions are wrong, emphasizes Morin. 

“Feelings are OK—even if you think they seem out of proportion,” Morin advises parents. 

“Whether you think they’re mad, sad, frustrated, embarrassed, or disappointed, put a name to it. Then, demonstrate you understand how they feel and be empathetic.”

4) Your emotions were too difficult to handle by the caretakers in your life 

A few years ago, I interviewed acclaimed Latina feminist author Isabel Allende—she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2014. 

In our conversation, Allende related that she had a lot of anger issues as a child. Her mother had no idea how to handle her daughter’s “difficult” disposition and conducted several doctors to find out what was “wrong” with her. Likewise, the nuns in charge of her education ended up expelling her at age six for “insubordination.”

Many children grew up with parents who often ignored their emotions. Maybe because emotions were seen as “bad” and “chaotic” or because they didn’t know how to deal with children’s “bad behavior”.

Going to your parents over and over again in childhood only to be let down creates deep feelings of disappointment, says Jonice Webb, PhD

“Over time, you learn that it’s painful to rely on people and that asking for help is useless. This is because each time you searched for support, your feelings of aloneness were amplified.”

Webb says that when you need help now as an adult, you might become very uncomfortable. 

“Asking for help triggers your fear of disappointment and lack of trust that even those who love you will actually come through for you.”

5) Even when you did express yourself, your emotions were invalidated 

One of the effects of classical emotional neglect is feeling emotional invalidation from our parents or caregivers, says the team at Relationship Place.

“You grew up thinking that your feelings are not valuable and result in covering and hiding them from others.”

The experts say that adults who grew up from parental invalidation would oftentimes develop a “stronger” pseudo persona that they want other people to see in them. 

“Some can even control their emotional expression to keep their ‘weak’ feelings hidden.”

Chronic invalidation compels a person to lose confidence in themselves because they have no one to tell them that they’re right in feeling how they feel, think, and act on things. 

“This might be the result of someone invalidating your thoughts, emotions, and perceptions as a child, or being constantly told you’re wrong.”

The staff at Relationship Place says that while losing confidence once in a while is normal, it can be destructive to give other people the right to affect your personal judgements. 

Everyone has a right to their emotional needs—even, and especially, children 

Growing up, it is the emotional, psychological, and biological responsibility of our parents and family members to create a safe environment for us, says the Aletheia LonerWolf.

“But not all parents accept that responsibility, are aware of that responsibility, or have the capacity to fulfill that responsibility.”

Safety doesn’t just mean physically protecting children from harm, feeding them, or other basic needs, adds Aletheia. 

“Safety also means supporting us on the emotional, psychological, and spiritual levels inherent to us as human beings.”

Picture of Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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