Protecting our kids from emotions

Being upset in front of your kids might be better than putting on a smile.

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Every parent tells white lies. Harmless deceptions like letting your children believe in Santa or the tooth fairy because it brings them joy (and hopefully incentivizes them to behave better around the holidays). But there is another kind of lie parents tell with only the best intentions: emotional ones. And most adults probably don’t even realize they’re doing it.

When something upsetting happens, it’s not uncommon for a parent to pretend that everything is fine. It’s one of those helicopter-parent instincts to protect your child. Maybe you want to cry or get angry, but instead you breathe deeply, and pull yourself together before facing your kids. The logic is clear: there’s no need to burden your kids with your rough day, or scare them with your red-face or teary eyes. Good parents are superheroes and role models, who should shield their kids from troubled moments. Or should they?

When we paste on that smile and push down sad or frustrated feelings in order to give our kids a harmonious home, we’re actually doing everyone a disservice—including the adults.

A recent study from the University of Toronto found that parents who suppress negative emotions while bolstering positive emotions while talking with their kids “reported experiencing lower authenticity, emotional well-being, relationship quality, and responsiveness to their children’s needs.”

In other words, when we paste on that smile and push down sad or frustrated feelings in order to give our kids a harmonious home, we’re actually doing everyone a disservice—including the adults. Parents who suppressed upset in front of their children in the study ended up feeling worse because those fake smiles and faux cheer made them feel like liars later. And lying to our kids (even the white kind) never feels great.

But, perhaps more importantly, parents need to think about what this does to our kids. When kids aren’t exposed to raw emotions, they aren’t getting a realistic view of life. In fact, other studies indicate that when kids see their parents hurt or even cry, it helps develop empathy.

When kids notice their parents distress and respond to it, that situation not only helps them empathize, but engaging in the act of listening or offering a hug or other kind gesture to their family members helps them feel better.

“The capacity to notice the distress of others, and to be moved by it, can be a critical component of what is called pro-social behavior, actions that benefit others: individuals, groups or society as a whole,” says Perri Klass, MD, professor of Journalism and Pediatrics at New York University.

When kids notice their parents distress and respond to it, that situation not only helps them empathize, but engaging in the act of listening or offering a hug or other kind gesture to their family members helps them feel better. Certainly this is something we understand as adults. When a friend shares a hardship and we offer a listening ear and a supportive embrace, we all feel better. Even if it means we had to enter into someone else’s hurt to get there. It’s the same for kids.

But those of us who have broken down in front of our kids and lived to tell about it know that the benefits don’t stop there. Because sometimes when you lose your cool, it leads to insightful conversation with your kids.

Being granted forgiveness or second chances, and understanding that we all make mistakes, are important lessons in the life of a family.

As a mother of three, I’ve experienced this first hand. Yes, I’ve lost my composure, and yelled at my kids. In those moments, I’m not the model of happiness or calm. But I end up being the model of the art of apology. As awful as I feel post-eruption, the sweetness of the moments offering a heart-felt apology (often with a stab at an “explanation”) show my kids how to say sorry. Being granted forgiveness or second chances, and understanding that we all make mistakes, are important lessons in the life of a family.

I’ve also used these outbursts to teach my kids about the beauty of bad days, in that, we all have them, but we also all get through them. In the times my kids have seen me cry or just generally feel sad, it’s led to great discussions about our need as humans to wade through some tough stuff but also about the hope (and the truth) that it does get better.

That said, there is a line to be drawn. The benefits of being “emotionally honest” with kids doesn’t necessarily mean sharing every last emotion or every last detail with them.

According to Beth Proudfoot, a marriage and family therapist and parent educator in San Jose, California, and co-author of the audiobook, The Magic of Positive Parenting, kids tend to think our tears are always about them. So we have to be careful and clear about the reasons for our emotions.

Experts also warn about sharing too many details. Instead, offering our kids a general reason, reminding them it’s not about them, and assuring them everything will be okay (and that crying is good!) helps kids understand—and relate.

And ultimately, this is what our emotions are about. They are meant to help connect us to our families and to the world around us.

Caryn Rivadeneira
Caryn Rivadeneira
Caryn Rivadeneira is the author of five books and is a columnist for Her.meneutics and ThinkChristian. She lives outside Chicago with her husband, three kids, and one red-nose pit bull. Visit her at carynrivadeneira.com.

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