A few months ago, my son climbed out of bed, wandered downstairs and found me crying on the couch. “What’s wrong, Mommy?” he asked, lifting the afghan draped over my lap and sliding under my arm.
I groaned. I’d held on until he’d been tucked in, but then I’d felt safe to unleash my grief. Feb. 3 is the day my mom died at the age of 58. Every year since I’ve had a rough time on the anniversary. I’d known that the tears were coming, but I hadn’t wanted my son to see me grieving.
Parents often want to put on a happy face for our children, to shield them from emotions they’re too young to understand. Other times our children witness us yelling at the man who cut us off in traffic or catch us crying over a loss. And I’d argue that it’s not a mistake to let our kids see the moments when we’re angry or sad or just irritated. These can be a great opportunity to teach your child emotional intelligence.
Why let them see the bad stuff?
Sadness, fear, anger, annoyance, irritation — we may not do it consciously, but most of us sort our emotions into boxes labeled "good" and "bad." But as Nancy Stiefel, licensed clinical social worker, points out, “all feelings are acceptable and there are reasons for all of them.”
I had a reason to feel sad on the anniversary of my mother’s death. You probably had a reason to get annoyed at the person taking 15 minutes to order coffee. While emotions may be misdirected or shifted — you’re really angry at your husband but you take it out on the babysitter — it’s the emotion’s expression or target that may be unacceptable, not the emotion itself.
We want our children to know that all feelings are normal and fine. Besides, we’re lousy at hiding them, no matter what we think. If our kids ask us, “Mommy, why are you mad?” and we reply with, “Oh, I’m not mad!” through gritted teeth and a clenched jaw, we’re teaching them to not only distrust their instincts and read of our emotions, but also to bottle up and deny anger.
Teaching your kids the language of emotions
If your kids have seen you model a healthy emotional expression, you can point back to that memory when they need help with their own.
“Remember when Mommy was really irritated when that woman at Starbucks took her coffee? How did I handle it? Did I yell ‘latte thief!’? Did I snatch the cup out of her hand and risk burning her? Did I blame the barista and yell at them?”
“What did I do?”
“You asked her to make you another latte.”
“So when you were irritated that the waiter gave you mustard instead of ketchup, what could you have done?”
And then you can talk through healthier emotional expressions with them.
What do you do when you slip up?
Don’t be afraid to be honest if you behaved less than maturely. Sometimes, the best lesson comes from acknowledging our failures. “That wasn’t a nice thing to do, and I shouldn’t have said that.”
We’re human, and if we own that humanity and try to make it right, we’re giving our children permission to do the same. It’s a guarantee in life that they will feel sad or angry at some point or another. And it’s a virtual guarantee they won’t always handle it well. Model how to recover from slip-ups, and your child won’t be afraid that it’s the end of the world if they yell at a friend. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be consequences for their actions — or for yours. Show them how you apologize or correct your bad behavior.
While parental standards of what is and isn’t considered appropriate can vary, a good guide is to ask yourself what you’d be comfortable with them seeing in their entertainment. Am I OK with Katerina Kittycat getting mad when she doesn’t get the triangle during music class on Daniel Tiger? Yes, partially because the episode uses it to teach a lesson about anger. Am I OK with Lord Garmadon slapping a henchman across the face in Ninjago? No. TV, books, what they see at school, all of these can serve as a guide to what your child can handle when you’re sharing your emotions with them.
Beyond that, Stiefel points out that it’s important for the parent to stay in control. You don’t want to frighten them. You can get angry, but make sure that you’re not “verbally attacking, humiliating or threatening the child or someone else,” Stiefel clarifies. The goal is to teach them to properly handle all their emotions, remember?
Emotions are only frightening if they are uncontrolled, unnamed and happen without reason. If you give your child the tools to recognize what the emotion is, why they’re feeling it and how to express it, they can integrate their emotions to become a fuller, more well-rounded adult.