Research shows that it is important for adults to share their emotions with children. Dr. John Gottman points out that Emotion Coaching parents are effective in raising emotionally intelligent children, and these parents “value the purpose and power of emotions in their lives, they are not afraid to show emotions around their children.” (Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child, Gottman, 1997.) Furthermore, children become better able to regulate their own responses to strong emotions when we are able to share our own feelings (both negative and positive). In other words, children need their parents to be able to express their feelings in order to build the connected relationships that lead to social emotional resilience.
There are some real challenges to do that. Many adults are not equipped to do so, and one of the most common mistakes I see teachers and parents make is to simply say: “That makes me sad.” in response to a negative behavior. Or “I am so sad that you chose not to follow the rules.” This feels shaming and yet, the adult will say that they are expressing their feelings. What is the difference here? Let’s break it down.
Sometimes because we believe that children need a very simplistic feeling word to understand us, we rob them of the chance to learn more nuanced ways to understand feelings. So, when your child is arguing in the back seat with their brother, and throws a shoe, are you actually sad? I would feel frustrated, or worried about being safe in the car. Sometimes you are just sad. I was sad when the dog died. I could say that. And show that. But when my child did not do what I said, I felt ignored. When children do not follow the rules that you set out, you might feel frustrated, ignored, worried, angry or even confused. So why just say sad? It robs the child of the opportunity to learn how their behavior affects you. In fact, it’s confusing.
One subtle difference here is blame. When you say that you "feel sad when… " you are letting them know how something affects you. For example, I might say, “I feel sad when you leave for college after break, because I will miss you and I might be a little teary.” This helps your son or daughter understand why you are looking this way. You might even add reassurance that you will be ok and are glad they are able to go. However, would you say, “You make me sad when you leave for college”? I hope not. Feels more like you want to make them feel guilty. Which is not helpful. So, think if your child doesn’t clean their room as you asked. And now you all can’t leave for the park. So, you may actually be sad or disappointed that you will miss the park. But its not helpful to say…”You make me sad when you don't clean your room.” This feels like a way to make them feel guilty and then clean out of guilt. Whereas, saying “When we miss the park to stay back and clean, I feel a little sad because I wanted to go. “ This feels different. It lets the child know why you seem upset, what you are feeling and does not leave them guessing. When children are left guessing, its more anxiety producing. They may realize that their behavior had an impact on you, but they are not making you feel this way. Its a subtle difference, but it matters. As a guideline to share your feelings without shaming or confusing a child, share neutrally what happened or what they did without judgment, and then how you feel about it. And those feelings can be negative or positive. “I am so grateful that you cleaned up the table without me asking.” This sounds simple, but is often harder for parents to learn. In Mariposa courses, we help parents identify those feelings and find the words to share with children.
Recently, I heard this from a trusted therapist as we navigated grief. So, children should see that you are able to feel sad, when there is a death or other sad time. However, they do look to you to see you are ok enough to take care of them. So extreme expressions of sadness may be too much. If you need to sob and blubber, find a safe adult or alone space to do so. If you do cry hard and your child looks worried, they may need reassurance. “I am really sad and miss her. I will be ok.” And, in the same way, other strong feelings like anger. It's okay to say, "I am angry that the person in the store insulted me." And show some anger, but scary to see you yelling and losing control. And if you do yell at your child or spouse, come back and apologize. So, recognize when you need an adult or your own space to process your own big emotions. Even saying to your child, “I need a little time to myself and then I want to come and get ready for dinner with you”.
When we teach in our Mariposa Education Parenting courses the importance of sharing your feelings authentically, there is often a visceral response of the participants – Are we supposed to burden our children with our feelings? Isn't this giving them a guilt trip?
There is truth to that concern. If your child has lost something of value because they did not put it away when asked, you may express frustration about that, but not likely to share your financial woes and how hard it is going to be to pay the bills this month. You might share that you find it difficult to talk when you are interrupted, but do not want to share your fear that you are raising rude children. You see the difference. Just focus on this moment, this event and how you can share its impact on you. And consider what your child can handle. As parents, we have a bigger worry story. That is too much to lay on a child. In other words, talk about your concern if they do not go to soccer practice today, not that they are going to be a quitter.
And since we first need to feel understood to understand others, include at least as much empathy for their feelings as you share your own. Building a relationship with your child and fostering resilience requires that you accept and empathize with their feelings. “You are upset you lost it, too, and wish you had remembered to put it away.”
In your efforts to connect with your child, working to be understood and understanding them is the basis for a quality relationship. In our self study course, Thrive! Creating Connection, Collaboration and Control with Children, you can learn the skills you need, with the words to get started. It takes time and intentionality to change patterns and build a relationship that builds emotional resilience. Go to https://www.mariposaeducation.org/for-parents to learn more.