There’s a pretty standard response from people when a person begins to cry. Tissues are whisked from the box and offered. Here’s a cure for sadness as though dabbing the soft cotton fibers will ease emotional pain.
Then some well intentioned words of support, along with an embrace. “It’s going to be okay, don’t cry.” Or “don’t be sad.” “Stop that crying and be happy.” “You are strong.”
In a way, these gestures imply that the crying needs to hurry up and stop.
What happens when this is communicated to kids and teens when they cry? They could hear: conceal your emotions because they aren’t valid. How you feel doesn’t really matter.
And when parents do this, they could be communicating to their child that they don’t have time for their sadness, pain or self doubt. How many of us have told a kid, maybe our own kid, to suck it up?
If you don’t listen, empathize and attend to their needs, it’s a surefire method to cut off communication with your child and could further stifle the relationship during a pivotal stage of development.
Science Explains Tears
Scientists have studied crying to make sense of behavior, and evidence points to crying as way to achieve social bonding with others. Tears are a visible way to communicate vulnerability and signal a need for support.
As kids head to school and begin to assert their independence, they may ask for help from parents and adults less frequently so when tears are shed, it’s time to jump in.
Crying may be the way to get your attention when a child or teen doesn’t have the emotional maturity or language to ask for help.
Parents strive to raise emotionally healthy children and want their kids to be able to tell them anything, however it is critical to remember that the behavior parents exhibit, positive or negative, can dictate how kids will respond.
Parent’s Emotional Expression Plays a Role
The way parents handle emotions is modeled to kids and teens. As a parent, you can have a bad day and appropriately let that be known to your children, but by enacting healthy coping skills you convey to your kids that your own actions will result in overcoming the obstacle.
Sherrie Campbell, a licensed psychologist, offers this sound advice in Huffington Post’s parenting blog. “If you act helpless and defeated to your children they will never learn to respect you and will treat you as an equal or an inferior because you have used them for your own therapy, Campbell writes. “You must show your children you can stand up to problems, face your challenges and handle life through all the stress and come out on the other side. Be real, have your emotions, but do not burden your children.”
Concealing the physical effects of difficult emotions serves to protect us from appearing vulnerable or seeming weak.
We may hide our sadness and downplay our struggles, but yet our emotional state remains fully present. John Gottman, a Psychologist who studies relationships, cautions parents from hiding their emotions in his book Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child. By not expressing emotions in a healthy and open way, “children have one less role model to teach them how to handle difficult emotions effectively,” Gottman writes in his book.
It’s an intricate balance of being genuine with your emotions when in the presence of your child without being as transparent and needy as you would with a friend.
Your kid, regardless of their maturity level, is still a child and boundaries must remain intact for successful parenting. Make it safe for your child to express themselves, and while you don't have to ugly cry in front of your kids you can show that you aren't afraid of challenging circumstances and difficult emotions whether they are your child's or your own.
Conversation Tips & Ideas
- Reflect on your day with your kid. You can use a scale to assess the day. For example, you could ask how their day rated on a scale of 110 and then share your own day’s rating. Then discuss a plan to make the next day better. Questions: “What could you do differently to make your day better tomorrow?” “What did you learn today that might help you later on?”
- Recount one highpoint and lowpoint from your day and encourage your child to do the same. Mutual self disclosure generates connectivity and it avoids just asking the dreadful, “how was your day?”
- Own your emotions by giving them an explicit name, but then embrace an optimist vantage view. This will teach your child to identify emotions and overcome negative feelings. For example, “I’m a little frustrated today, but I’m looking forward to making a delicious lasagna tonight. Would you like to help?”
- Be honest, but also be mindful. You can let your kid know of your emotional state, but remember that your child is not your confidante or personal counselor. Maintain clear boundaries and demonstrate how you can find solutions to your problems.
- Allow your child to reflect on their emotions after they were able to outwardly express how they were feeling. You can ask them how they feel now that they have been able to share their feelings with you.