Should I Hide my Negative Emotions from my Kids? A Family Therapist's Response

Should I Hide my Negative Emotions from my Kids A Family Therapists Response

For generations, we have been taught to hide our emotions unless they are easy to digest for those around us.

Smiles are socially acceptable, laughter as a response to witty banter. 

However, when it comes to negative emotions, such to include fear, sadness, and anger, a lot of us have been taught to hide and suppress them. 

For some, shutting them down so abruptly that they refuse to believe they are even valid within themselves. 

So, this begs the question for parents, should we only show our children 'positive' emotions, or should we show them ALL emotions?

Many parents worry that by showing negative emotions in front of their children, their children may blame themselves or 'absorb' the emotion itself, inflicting distress on them. 

While there is some validity to this, the context of such is important as we can mitigate the self-blame and absorption. 

If we choose to hide all negative emotions, our children will not only NOT learn to cope with negative emotions, but will also feel they are not okay to express. 

They will learn to internalize, shut down, and have a hard time understanding when they are dysregulated, and may even choose maladaptive coping skills like hitting, shouting, or isolating. 

If we show our children all emotions, we can help them understand, cope, and not blame themselves for our negative emotions as well.

Conversations, role modeling of coping skills, and allowing ourselves to feel the feels are important because our children will be more regulated and have increased abilities to cope as they develop. 

We will get into the nitty-gritty as to why down below. 

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What It's Like to Internalize and Suppress Emotions

  bPrevious generations of parenting styles taught us that it was not okay to have big feelings in order to cater to the comfort of those around us. 

A lot of us were taught that we were essentially emotionally responsible for those around us and had to emotionally 'caretake.' 

This, in turn, lead to the development of poor boundaries and codependency. 

Additionally, an inability to recognize when we were experiencing negative emotions because our bodies were accustomed to shutting them down and not allowing ourselves to feel. 

When we suppress and shut down, our body physiologically reacts as well. 

We may experience symptoms of physical distress including higher blood pressure, nausea, sweating, etc. 

Additionally, those around us may be able to pick up on our dysregulation and become dysregulated themselves, especially children. 

In turn, they aren't understanding why they are distressed as we are showing in an outward appearance that we are 'fine.' 

This causes confusion and even more dysregulation. 

Showing Negative Emotions,  Then What?  

 Maybe you had a terrible day at work or slept poorly the night before. Maybe there was a death in the family you recently found out about. 

You feel dysregulated already and your toddler decides to throw an entire plate of ketchup chicken nuggets on the carpet. 

Perhaps your teenager slams the door and yells something insulting when you asked them to do their laundry for the third time. 

You feel the stress internally and your body wants to cry because you are just so emotionally spent and this is its way of communicating to you to feel the feels and discharge emotion physically. 

So, you allow yourself to cry. Then What? 

Show the Emotion, Show the Regulation 

 So you have started crying and crying and you are really feeling the feels. 

Do you just continue to show distress and leave it at that? 

Nope! Here is why. 

We want to show our children that it is okay to feel whatever feelings, BUT also that we are attempting to cope with them. 

We want our children to understand that healthy coping is how we deal with these intense emotions. 

Shouting, throwing things, etc. are not healthy ways of coping and by doing so, we are teaching our children that that is how to cope. 

Instead, if we chose something grounding like deep breaths, a walk outside, or talking to a friend on the phone, our children can learn how to cope healthily and effectively. 

As they are watching us, we can show something along the lines of:

"I am very sad and it feels better to cry, I am very tired and have had a bad day – and that it has nothing to do with you and you did not cause my sadness. I am going to take some deep breaths and go for a brief walk outside. When I come back, let's do a puzzle."

In this example, we are accountable for our emotions, the physiological response we allow our bodies to engage in, ensure the child knows it is NOT their fault, our healthy coping skills, AND, BONUS! A bid for emotional connection with them. 

Conclusion

A fair balance into navigating emotional expression is that we can allow ourselves to feel the feels, but do our best to ground through them. 

There will be times where perhaps we just lose control and are not able to ground effectively. 

That is okay, we are not perfect, and in fact, are human beings capable of emotional error in this regard. 

I always tell my parent clients to shoot for an 80/20 rule. Let's do our best to be regulated and healthy cope 80% of the time, but allow space, permission, and kindness to ourselves on those days where it is extremely difficult. 

The repair work you can do with your children is more important than being 'perfect' all of the time because it shows them that we can be vulnerable, capable of error, and accountable for such. 

So, the next time you are sad, angry, or worried, show it, own it, and healthily cope through it as best you can.

These are tools you are using yourself to feel better, and providing a toolbox for your children to do so as well. 

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August 13th, 2022

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