“Mommy, why are you crying?”

“Mommy, why are you crying?”

When it comes to expressing emotions in front of your child, how much is too much?

Recently, a parent asked about expressing strong emotions like sadness or anger. She's going through a rough time in her life, and was worried that she was crying in front of her child too often. She is also arguing with her husband a lot, and she wondered if I thought parents should limit those kinds of expressions, especially if they're happening fairly frequently.

We get asked a lot about how parents "should" react or behave around their children, and our answer is always the same:

Just be genuine and honest.

You want to teach kids that it's okay to feel how they feel. So when you're having those emotions, it's an opportunity to model a respectful way of expressing them.

If honestly expressing your emotions in front of your child sounds difficult or scary to you, then this is a great opportunity for your own growth! Chances are, when you were growing up, being sad or angry was discouraged. From that you learn very quickly that there are "good" emotions and "bad" emotions, and that you should only express the "good" ones. That doesn't leave a lot of room for learning how to effectively handle things like anger and sadness.

So, as is often the case, raising your child is the perfect chance for you to finally learn to accept all of your emotions, as you are teaching your child to do the same. That means recognizing that every emotion, even "bad" ones like anger or sadness, are healthy and normal. What can be problematic are the actions people sometimes take when they feel those things.

One way to accept your emotions is to recognize that each one has a purpose.

For example, sadness seems to move you toward acceptance. That's why tears are so helpful - they release stress and frustration. After a good cry, you might notice that you are better able to handle a difficult situation or accept a change you don't like. While the natural impulse of many is to stop tears as quickly as possible, once you see them as a healthy expression of a naturally occurring emotion, it becomes much easier to allow them to flow.

Anger has a different purpose. Since anger is a response to feeling powerless, its purpose seems to be to kick you into action to make you feel more powerful. That's why you naturally respond with big sounds, aggressive actions, and blaming others. Of course, directing those things at others is not healthy, but the anger is, so the challenge is to separate the two - embrace the anger and change (not eliminate) your expressions.

To allow tears or change angry actions, you can begin thinking in terms of, "How do I want my child to act when he feels sad or angry? What do I want to model for him as healthy expressions of those emotions?" Because your child will inevitably have those emotions, you want him to see that you feel them, too, and so does everyone else. In addition, you can use your arguments with your spouse as an opportunity to show your child that it is possible to feel angry, express that emotion, and disagree in a respectful way

This is much better than pretending that you don't have those feelings when you do. Besides, hiding stuff from kids doesn't actually work—they know when something's going on. All you achieve is sending an unspoken message that those feelings are something you should hide or repress. Not the message you want to give to your children!

Instead, try using child language to talk openly about your emotions. For example, when your child is concerned about your feelings:

Child: "Daddy, why are you crying?" Or, "Don't cry, mommy."

 

Parent: "I just have a lot of tears, and I need to get them all out. Once I do, I can smile again. And then if I feel sad again, that just means I have more tears that I need to let out."

This is your opportunity to explain that crying is a release and let your child see how it works for you. Saying that also empowers your child to help "facilitate" your tears. You can let her know that her job is not to make you feel better, that's what the crying is doing. Then don't be surprised if you hear:

Child: "Daddy, get all of those tears out! You'll feel better once they're all gone." Or, "Mommy, sometimes you just need to cry. Crying helps let the sadness out."

The best part about having your child's help in accepting your feelings is that it will allow him to accept his own. By modeling expression and acceptance, you create a safe environment for the child to practice doing the same with himself, even when you're not there.

What about anger? If you yell or do other things you regret, you can explain that to your child:

Parent: "I got angry and said/did some things I don't like. I need a do-over. Now that I'm calm, I can apologize and explain how I feel in a more respectful way. Then I need to make a plan for what to do differently next time."

You can even ask your child for suggestions or ideas, and then try those out. If something doesn't work, be sure to come back and talk openly about what happened:

Parent: "I tried that, and it was too hard this time. I'll try again next time," or "I need a new plan."

If your idea or the child's suggestion does work, make sure to acknowledge the child for her contribution:

Parent: "I just got angry, then I remembered the plan you helped me with and tried it. It worked! I stayed calm and only used respectful words. I felt powerful."

 

STRENGTH: "That was some helpful compassionate coaching!"

The great part is, when you empower your child to help you "plan" for how to handle things or help "facilitate" your feelings, you are giving him the tools he needs to make plans for and facilitate his own emotional expressions as well. And really, what better legacy can you leave your child?

 

Note: Our coaching is for parents who are operating within the normal range of emotional expression and are simply seeking self-help. If you're often angry, sad, or depressed, and are worried that it might be damaging to your child, you need to trust your instincts. If you are truly concerned about your well-being or your child's for any reason, do not hesitate to seek the help of a mental health professional. A licensed psychologist can assess the situation and help you find the kind of support you need. Many work on sliding scales to be sure you can afford their services, so don't hesitate to ask. 

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