Ep. 82c – Rachel Cram – How Do We Express Emotions In Front Of Our Kids?
Is it appropriate to cry in front of your children? To be angry? To show frustration? How we express our emotions in front of our kids is an important component to their emotional development and in tricky parenting moments what to do and how to respond is not always obvious.
In this episode, we’re looking at two separate questions asked by listeners on this topic. Join us!
Rachel CramRachel Cram is the founding director of Wind and Tide Education Community which she started in the basement of her White Rock home, January 1987. Wind and Tide is built upon the foundations of whole child development and has grown to include over 160 staff and 35 campus locations across the lower mainland of British Columbia, Canada.
Rachel is also a Mom to 6 fabulous kids, and the host of family360, created by Wind and Tide to provide current conversations with specialists, artists and storytellers, exploring parenting, family and life together.
Ep. 82c – How Do We Express Emotions In Front Of Our Kids? – Rachel Cram
RC – Hello family360 listeners. This is Rachel Cram and we are at our third and final question for this series based on Episode #82, Emotional Development In Kids.
Today we’re answering 2 more great questions from you on emotions in parents. We’re going to be talking about how parents display their emotions in front of their kids. Is it appropriate to cry? To be angry? To show our frustration?
Roy’s going to read the first question and then we’ll go to the second afterward.
RS – Ok. Here is the first question
What is your perspective on crying in front of your kids? I distinctly remember several times as a child when I saw my Mom crying. In my memory, she was sobbing uncontrollably and my Dad was trying to comfort her. It scared me and I felt really unsettled and worried for a long time after, even when she seemed ok again.
My guess is that you will say ‘yes’, parents should show their emotions to their kids, but I wonder if there are any parameters around that? My kids have seen me get teary eyed at Disney movies, but so far I’ve never really cried hard in front of them. I don’t want them to feel like ‘I did’. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
RC – Thanks Roy. How we express our emotions in front of our kids is a really important component to their emotional development, so I’m really glad this question was asked!
So much of what we teach our children about emotions is through our modeling. How they see us respond, or react, and ‘feel’ in big emotional moments but also in day-to-day realities that occur. Sometimes we might wish this was not the case, but kids learn much more from who we are than from what we teach.
If we want our child to know that all emotions are important – that it’s good to cry, or share our fears or let people know when we’re tired or overwhelmed, we need to let them see us valuing and expressing those emotions in ourselves as well.
If we’re telling our child “It’s good to cry,” and they never see us cry, that doesn’t make much sense.
If we’re telling our child, “It’s important to express anger, or frustration or your disappointment,” and they never see us doing that – that doesn’t work. Our message will get lost in that discrepancy.
They need to see us express our emotions – our humanity – so that they know that’s normal. That that is what human beings do.
Normalizing emotions and feelings is an important part of raising emotionally intelligent children. Our kids need to see what emotions look like on ‘us’ so they can identify and accept them in themselves. Otherwise it can leave them wondering, “Is this ok that I’m feeling like this? Or that I’m reacting like this? Is something wrong with me? Why does no one else seem to be this way?”
RS – Ok, so this Mom was correct when she thought that “yes, parents should show their emotions to their kids.”
RC – Yes, but every child, and every parent, and every family has their own propensity for emotional expression so it’s not a one size fits all answer. This parent who wrote the email said she felt really unsettled and worried for a long time after she saw her mom cry, even when her Mom seemed ok again. Another child might not have worried like that, but all kids do need to know that we as their parents are ok.
It’s really scary for a child to not know that we will rally – we are still going to be there for them. So you want to assure them you’re going to be ok. Give some developmentally appropriate context to why you were crying. You might say to a preschooler, “That was a plate Grandma gave me so when it fell off the wall and broke I felt really sad and I cried because it was so special to me. I’ll miss that plate but I’ll be ok.”
And then, if the moment seems right, you can ask your child, “How did you feel when you saw me crying?” Or, “How did you feel when you saw Mommy or Daddy cry?”
Let them tell you. So then, if they did feel scared or unsettled or worried like this parent says they felt when they saw their Mom cry, then you can give them comfort and reassurance again that you’ve still ‘got this’ as their parent.
If your tears are because you’ve lost your job or had an argument with your partner or something that’s too big or complicated or inappropriate for your child to developmentally process, don’t share that, but it’s still important to give some kind of context. You could say, “I’m just having a hard day.” Or, “I’m feeling kind of tired and stressed today, but it’s going to be ok. Some days are like that.”
So, you want them to know that it’s going to be ok.
RS – So, keep it age appropriate.
RC – Yeah. Now this email said, the mom was “sobbing uncontrollably.” There will probably be a few times in our child’s life when they will see us sobbing uncontrollably – say when we hear of the passing of a loved one – or some other kind of shock or really difficult news arrives. Extreme, out of control responses like that are really scary for kids. We’re the lifeline to our kid’s safety so if we’re out of control that means really that they’re out of control too and that makes them feel very unsettled and frightened.
You might tear up at movies or when you’re reading them a heartwarming story, or because you’re frustrated the dog threw up on the rug just after you finished cleaning. That’s perfectly ok and helpful for them to see. We want our kids to know ‘adults cry and feel better for it’.
If you’re crying due to sadness, let your kids know you’re sad, or this is a ‘happy cry,’ I’m crying because I’m so excited. Or I’m crying because I feel angry or frustrated or moved by this movie or book. We don’t want to stigmatize tears. Emotional development in children is nurtured best when parents model a full range of expression, but it also means not subjecting them to the extremes.
RS – But parents do experience the extremes.
RC – Yes, but if your kids are around, you may need to go somewhere they are not, or have someone care for them for the duration of that intensity. In this email the parent says her ‘Dad was with her Mom offering comfort,’ which is what a child needs to see will happen. Children should never be made to feel responsible for comforting an adult. That kind of power shift is inappropriate and damaging.
It’s wonderful if kids can come and rub a parent’s arm, or climb into their lap, or give them a hug when they’re crying or upset. That’s part of being a family and that’s showing empathy, but if kids shift into feeling like they need to support their parent, or be the one to help their parent feel better, that’s a potential cause of trauma for a child, perhaps like this parent in this email is expressing. As our parent’s age and we age, there may come a time when our parents, due to declines in health or mobility, need to rely on us for emotional support – and that’s going to be tough even then! Even when we’re 50 or 60, because it means the power dynamic of our family of origin has changed. So how much more for a younger child or even an adolescent? It’s very scary.
RS – Ok. Is there anything else you want to say before I read the next question? Or do you want to give some kind of a concluding comment?
RC – Humm. My concluding comment would be, it’s important to cry with sensitivity to the frequency and intensity and remembering to talk to them about it afterwards so they know you are ok and they are ok.
That’s my conclusion on that question.
RS – That was good Rachel.
RC – Ok, thank you.
RS – Ok, here’s the second question.
I hear the ‘keep calm’ message in your episode on Emotional Development in Kids and I’m wondering if showing anger and frustration when I am angry and frustrated by my kids, is also part of being in a close and healthy relationship.
Here’s what just happened in our house this morning. We have family coming to stay with us this weekend so I’d done some grocery shopping ahead of time. I clearly told my kids not to eat the food in the bottom two drawers of the fridge because it’s for this weekend. This morning I came downstairs to discover my 12-year-old had eaten half the yogurt container from that bottom drawer for breakfast.
I feel it’s important that my children know they sometimes make me angry or upset. I agree their emotions should not make me angry or upset, but what about their behaviors?
RC – This parent is absolutely correct in that the freedom to show anger and frustration and all of our emotions is part of an intimate relationship. However, our relationship with our kids is a different kind of emotional intimacy from what we’d have with a close friend or our partner. In a relationship with a friend or a partner, there’s ideally a balance of power. You’re on equal footing and equally invested in making the relationship thrive.
Unlike a relationship with a friend or a partner, our relationship with our kids is not balanced in terms of power. As parents, we hold much more power than our kids because we’re developmentally and experientially decades ahead of them. They are literally and figuratively looking up to us for protection and guidance.
Our kids want us to be large and in charge. They want to know we’re always going to have their back no matter what, despite their emotions or their choices, or their behaviors because that’s how they’ll survive.
So, it’s scary when we blow up at our kids because of that power imbalance. The playing field’s not level.
If we use our emotions to discipline our kids – if we show our anger or frustration by saying things like, “It makes me angry when you don’t listen to what I tell you,” or, “It makes me frustrated when you don’t do what I ask.” It makes them panic because it places the burden of our feelings on their backs – which is a load they’re not equipped to carry.
The child’s made an impulsive decision or acted out of some kind of dysregulation and it can seem like they are doing it at us, just like we talked about with whining in the last episode, but it’s not about us, it’s about them. They’ve made a poor choice. An immature decision. They’ve acted childishly. If we respond by disciplining with our emotions and telling them that their behavior has dysregulated us, now our child, who’s already shown their dysregulation by doing whatever it is that they’ve done, is even more dysregulated because they’ve been told what they did has disrupted us and their emotional connection to us.
RS – So what would this parent ideally do or say instead?
RC – A way I find helpful to think about this is; if you as a parent were at work and had done something to upset your boss, which is another relationship where there is a power imbalance, what kind of response would be best in order keep you in close relationship with your boss, and to help you do better next time?
If your boss came to you in a fury and yelled, or really aggressively said, “Roy, it makes me angry when you don’t listen to what I tell you.” or “It makes me frustrated when you don’t do what I ask.”
You’d likely panic and shut down.
RS – I would. I would. I’d clam up.
RC – Yeah, because there’s no real recourse. Your boss is telling you, ‘You are the reason they are feeling angry.’ Where do you go from there? What do you do with that? You can’t dispute some else’s feelings. And not only that, they hold all the power to determine not only what they want to do with you, but also how they’re going to deal with their own emotions. Your boss is the only one who can control their emotions.
But what if you had an emotionally intelligent boss who comes to you calmly, and there can still be assertion and clarity in their voice and demeanor, and says, “Roy, I notice you ate the food I’d put in the bottom door of the fridge. That’s a problem because I needed that for this weekend. What happened? Or, what can we do to fix this?”
Your boss is staying large and in charge. They haven’t thrown their power at you. They haven’t given you control of their feelings. The power balance is still intact.
Realistically, no parent or even boss for that matter will nail this all the time. Like we said in episode 82, repairing when we make mistakes is actually even better than making no mistakes. Not that ‘making no mistakes’ is possible.
RS – What would repair look like?
RC – It could look like, “Hey, I’m sorry that I yelled at you about the food in the fridge. I wish I’d handled that more calmly.”
It acknowledges that we all will make mistakes and we can talk about them and hold our connection through them.
Repairing doesn’t mean that they don’t need to get on their bike and go to the store to get you more yogurt or clean up the kitchen while you go to get more yogurt, or whatever needs to happen to rectify the situation, but repair means to take back ownership of your own emotions. Help your child navigate theirs. And maintain and respect that power imbalance.
So, I realize this question is being addressed a couple of weeks after it was asked by this parent and the company has now come and gone but I hope that visit went well, and I hope this answer was helpful.
RS – We will be waiting on more questions from you after our next release, episode #83 Raising Mighty Girls – with our guest Australia’s wonderful Maggie Dent. So please keep writing in. We so appreciate it!
RC – And thanks for listening to family360.
RS – Thank you so much.