Many parents feel that shielding their children from tough life scenarios is a cardinal responsibility of parenting. They keep their children from learning about difficult situations or hide their own emotions as a way to provide a sense of peace and security.
While young children are not necessarily ready for exposure to some of the horrors of the world, some difficult situations are unavoidable. The family may experience the loss of a loved one or pet, a job loss, a move, a new sibling or many other scenarios accompanied by a range of emotions. In these situations, parents may try to hide how they are feeling for fear of making the child feel unsettled.
While there is no right or wrong way to handle emotions, parents can take into account the situation, the maturity of the child and the amount of details they wish to disclose. Whenever appropriate, allowing children to see parents demonstrate emotions can be beneficial. When children witness parents experiencing sadness, it offers an opportunity to discuss why this situation made the parent sad and talk through coping strategies. Being open and honest about feelings and emotions within age-appropriate boundaries teaches children that their own emotions are valid, even if they differ from others. Talking with them through situations where the parent is angry, frustrated, sad or even stressed opens the door of communication and demonstrates to children that talking about their emotions is a healthy way to wade through difficult times.
As the mental health crisis grows, teaching children the value of accepting and expressing emotions in a safe environment prepares them for success and resiliency as they grow into the teenage and adult years. If children never see the range of emotions modeled in a healthy way that also demonstrates resolution, they unconsciously learn to keep their emotions inside.
The same holds true for disagreements with others, whether it be a spousal argument or a disagreement with a friend or other family member. The children do not need to know or see every disagreement, but if they are in earshot during a marital argument, do not despair. Allow them to see how a healthy disagreement happens and how it is resolved in a mutually agreeable fashion.
Allowing children to see an occasional fluctuation of emotions or disagreements is a healthy part of their development. Talk openly with them about the situation, the emotions involved and coping strategies. It is not necessary to discuss every situation with children just as it is not necessary to avoid it. If conflict or sadness are pervasive, consider seeking professional help. While it is not necessary to share specifics, letting children see that parents are seeking help demonstrates that this action is acceptable.
While many parents are hesitant to let their children see them cry, allowing them to witness parents experiencing emotions makes them human. This models that a range of emotions is healthy and the children are processing the best way to recover and rebound from a hard time. An open dialogue about emotions and what you and they are feeling will prepare them for a lifetime of identifying and addressing problems. Tough times for parents are often teachable moments for children.
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