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How authentic should parents be with kids about their own emotions?

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Dr. Laura,

Does being emotionally stoic damage kids emotionally? Shouldn't they see our authentic emotions?


Yes, in general I agree with you that it's good to show our children our authentic emotions. However, that is often misinterpreted to mean that it's fine to scream at our children to show them our authentic anger. That's actually damaging.

In fact, anger by itself is not authentic. It is not the whole truth. It is our body's defensive reaction to fear or powerlessness or grief or another deep, upsetting emotion. So if we really wanted to be authentic with our children, we would not scream at them when they resist doing their homework. We would admit the deeper truth: "I am terrified that you are acting like this because maybe you have a learning disability...I feel powerless to get you to do this work and I am afraid you will fail at school and ruin your life." But of course that would be a terrible thing to say to a child in the name of authenticity. So while I generally favor authenticity, I think it's much more complex than than simply being "authentic."

So let's start with your question about stoicism. The dictionary definition of "Stoicism" is "the endurance of pain or hardship without a display of feelings and without complaint." So I suspect you mean when parents stuff their feelings? If we're giving kids the message that emotions aren't okay, then yes, stoicism is damaging. We need to experience our emotions, and to show our children that it is safe to experience emotions.

If that means we sit down on the floor and cry sometimes, I think that is a good thing for children to see. We can just explain that we're sad, so we're crying, but things will be okay. That's a great learning experience for a child, especially when we are able to smile at them and talk about it shortly thereafter. What if we're swept by a very strong emotion, such as grief? We cry.

What if it upsets our child? We hold them, and reassure them that we are feeling sad about xyz, and so we're crying....and that we will stop crying soon. If our child might in any way think our tears are her fault, we reassure her that it's not her fault, and everyone needs to cry sometimes. This kind of modeling makes it safe for kids to feel their full range of emotions.

Of course, if you're weeping on a daily basis, it's time to get some support so you can heal emotionally without involving your children in your deep emotional work.

Bottom line, I think the most important thing we can model to children about scary emotions is that we can handle them, and it isn't an emergency. That helps our child to feel safe enough to allow himself to feel the emotion. Once he feels the emotion, it begins to dissipate, and he moves back into a state of equilibrium.

By contrast, if we try to be "stoic" and we communicate that those feelings are not allowed, and our child tries to push his own feelings away, the child has to rigidly fend off the emotions, so he loses flexibility. And because the emotions end up out of conscious control, they tend to pop out when he gets tired or frustrated, which makes him more likely to lash out.

Another possibility that isn't ideal is if we get overwhelmed by our child's emotions, so that we become anxious or afraid in response to our child's emotions. It's our responsibility to work on our own emotional regulation to minimize responding to our child from our own anxiety. That doesn't mean we have to be stoic, in the sense of dulling our response. But it does mean we can't just fall apart when our kids are upset.

We're supposed to be the grown-up, the sherpa, the one holding the flashlight and modeling healthy emotional regulation. So when our child slides into dark waters, our job is to hold the light and help her out, not to jump in with her. Drama does not serve our children.

Of course, staying calm when our kids are upset is a tall order. What if we have feelings, too? Hopefully, we feel comfortable enough with our feelings to honor them as they come up. That means that we will find ourselves shifting through different emotions all day long. Happiness, sadness, disappointment, frustration, delight. Emotions are always arising and passing away. Tears are always coming to the eyes and smiles are always coming to the lips. If we accept all of these emotions and let them move through us, they dissipate, rather than triggering us. If we talk with our kids as we feel those emotions, we'll be teaching them about emotional wholeness at the same time.

What about when anger arises? Anger is the body's fight response, a message that there's a threat. Unfortunately, when we're in the grip of anger, our child often looks like the enemy. So indeed action might be called for, but any decision we make while angry will derive from our fear, not our love. Resist acting while angry, except to address an immediate safety issue. That means resist interacting until you calm down and can ask for what you need in a way that is not an attack. If you think your child deserves to see how angry he's made you, remember that those are your feelings, and only part of the emotion is coming from this current interaction. Part of it comes from your own past, and the way you're seeing this situation. You will be much more effective in intervening to guide your child once you calm down. In fact, I guarantee that your child's offense won't seem nearly so terrible, regardless of what it is.

Being authentic about the truth of your experience never requires you to "dump" them on someone else, unfiltered. As the Dalai Lama says, "Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible."

Or, as I often say, let's aim for less drama and more love.

Dr. Laura

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Dr. Laura Markham is the author of three best-selling books

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