My ten-year-old walked into my room as a tear rolled down my face. I was having a day. You know them. A day when I felt like my feelings were a treadmill, and nothing I did was right. I felt sad. I felt down. I felt unseen, and I felt unworthy. I felt like crying, so I was.
When my son walked into the room, I made no effort to hide what I was up to. I didn’t scramble to wipe my tear-streaked face when I heard the knob jiggle, or turn my back to conceal the evidence of my emotional release. I let him see me – upset, crestfallen, and raw.
“Are you okay, Mommy?”
“Yes, Honey, I’m just having a day. I’ll be okay.”
He accepted my answer and went about his day. I allowed myself to finish my moment, and when I was ready, I returned downstairs feeling better able to handle the world. Later he asked me if I was feeling better, and I assured him I was.
It seems selfish or self-centered to allow our children to see us upset. I think our inner voices sometimes tell us that it’s our job to shelter our children from our emotions, except feelings of joy and pride, and perhaps maybe occasionally frustration.
I think that does a disservice to our children.
For one, it robs them of seeing our humanity. Parents are people too. Fully dimensional ones, with a myriad of emotions and fears and desires. It’s okay for our children to know that. In fact, seeing how we manage our emotions is a way for them to learn to manage theirs. If they think we never feel sad, how will they know what to do when they feel sad? How will they know it’s normal for them to feel low sometimes, that everyone does, if they don’t see us feel that way?
I want my kids to know that everyone has days they just feel down, and if they need to take some time to themselves to let it out, they can without shame. By not making an attempt to hide when he came into the room, I let him know I was not ashamed to be feeling how I was, and that he needn’t ever feel ashamed of his feelings either.
The same goes for when I am feeling angry, or frustrated, or downright mad. I don’t claim to be perfect. I have yelled, in general and at them, out of anger. Find me a parent who hasn’t. And I have let them know that wasn’t the right way to deal with my anger too.
But I also label my emotions when I’m feeling frustrated or angry, whether or not they are the cause. If I’m feeling angry at something they have done, I tell them. If I am frustrated by their behaviour, I say so.
I want them to know it’s okay to verbalize their frustrations, even at the actions of another person. I would far rather my children learn to say, “I’m so frustrated by what you’re doing,” or “What you did/said really angered me” than holding it in, or having it come out in ways that are less healthy. Communicating emotions is a good thing.
I label happiness too. Happy is an important emotion, and I make sure my kids see that I am happy, because of them and in general.
But in addition to modeling and normalizing emotions and how to handle them, allowing my kids to see me upset fosters something else too - empathy. My son asked me if I was okay. He didn’t do it to be polite, he did it because he cared. I have asked him the same when he has seemed upset countless times. It wasn’t a rhetorical or empty question; he was interested in my answer.
I didn’t burden him with specifics. While it’s important for kids to know their parents experience different emotions, they don’t need to know all of their parents problems, or feel like it is on them to cheer their parents up. It isn’t. So I confirmed that I was feeling upset, and that he didn’t need to worry about that, but I appreciated him asking me.
I want my kids to be people who see that someone is feeling put out and feel comfortable checking in with them. I want them to be approachable and at home approaching others.
So I let them see me cry. I let them see me laugh. I let them see me take deep breaths to calm down when I am angry, or simply walk away. I let them see that I’m normal, and so are they. Talking about feelings is important, but so is showing them. And I will always have a shoulder for them to cry on too.