The Need to Feel

March 13, 2018

Guest Contributor: Larisa Bowen, Parent Class of 2022 and 2025

My daughter’s feelings have always been big. Joy pulses like a wave through her small body, radiating from every muscle and bouncing off her skipping feet. Her belly laugh, throaty and deep, is a fully unchecked surrender to the moment. The darker flashes are just as fierce, with fury or despair eclipsing her brow and exploding out from between clenched teeth and tight fists. Despite being sometimes bowled over by the intensity, I also marvel. There is a freedom and a power in her emotions that is undeniable. She doesn’t always handle each mood with grace, but she is very in touch with what’s going on inside her. I wonder how that might change.

Last month, I attended a parent education session by the Girls Leadership organization at Evergreen Country Day. Presenter Kim O’Malley shared some startling statistics: American girls are excelling by many metrics today; they are performing better in academics, sports and the arts. But they feel worse. When asked about their emotions—their happiness and self-worth—the girls are faltering. O’Malley made the point that for our girls, there is a growing disconnect between the surface and the interior. And maybe we contribute to this.

From an early age, we tend to label some kids as “sensitive.” It’s not a compliment. We insist they clamp down on strong emotions: particularly if the feelings are negative. We encourage them to “shake things off,” even if they are hurting, and we warn them against subjecting their friends to intense feelings, as if they are emanating a kind of virus that will infect. As adults, perhaps we model this too, avoiding difficult feelings in ourselves and others, and even labeling emotional displays as a liability.

By middle school, our kids—girls and boys—have become skilled at burying and tempering their emotions, and deftly sensing any weakness in others. Instead of using their own feelings as a barometer, they look outside of themselves for validation. The Facebook posts must show an ideal life. The Instagram shots must be liked. The friendships must be unwavering. But the price of being disconnected from your own emotions is high. Not only are you unable to show yourself compassion, but you are also unable to feel it and show it for others.

As I look around today, I wonder if we recognize how dangerous this emotional dissonance has become for our children and for our society. In our drive to ensure that our girls see no limits to their achievement, maybe we have missed the most important measure of their growth: their inner core. The Girls Leadership program reminds us, girls and boys too, that emotions are our strength… not our frailty. Our capacity to feel deeply, and to express that in a healthy way, is one of the most important parts of being human. Our emotional intelligence deserves as much development as our brains and our bodies.

For my daughter, enveloped in the throes of her mighty feelings, there is still time. I hope that as she grows, she will embrace and channel those emotions, but never lose touch with their potency. Her ability to connect with her own feelings, and those of others, may be one of the most important skills she ever learns.

To learn more about the Girls Leadership program, visit: