A lot of parents get so tired from their busy lives that they unintenionally operate in either a “superficial happy” state, or in anger (which is often just a way of hiding their underlying sense of feeling overwhelmed). We don’t do it on purpose, but it’s really common. We need to PURPOSEFULLY SHOW our kids a healthy spectrum of feelings, and the healthy coping skills for those feelings. If we don’t, our kids might do whatever we do: bottle up anxiety, “fake a smile” whevever people are watching, or lash out in exhaustion and frustration.
If we don’t model healthy emotions in front of our kids, where will they learn it? Kids watch us more than we realize. Eating diorders, for example, aren’t genetic; they often show up in teens as a result of learned anxiety, unhealthy coping skills, unaddressed depression, a frantic need for control, or impossible expectations. Of course, that’s not true of every case of eating disorders, but it is true often enough that it should at least give us pause and encourage us to help our kids recognize, healthfully manage, and express their emotions.
What messages are we sending?
When we hide our tears, never address our fears, put on a perpetually (fake) happy smile, or chastise our kids for crying, then they will think that being sad or scared is “weakness” and they will swallow their feelings or ignore them. If our kids do that for a few years, they may find themselves craving an outlet, an escape or a numbing distraction to deal with their emotions–like rebellious relationships, heightened anger, sexualized behaviors, drugs, or drinking. That’s not a stretch–it’s actually really common.
We call that kind of behavior “teen experimentation” or “rebellion,” but it may simply be “I never learned what to do with my feelings that get bottled up and so my friends suggested I try this thing out and I liked it.”
How can we teach HEALTHY coping strategies?
1. We can show our kids how we feel frustration and anger within healthy limits.
2.We can model sadness, from a hard day at work, a funeral or a loss, with a healthy sense of hope and a willingness to call it what it is.
3. We can come home and say we were frustrated at work, but ALSO include the core reason why we got frustrated (ie. disappointment, feeling disrespected, feeling hurt, loneliness, feeling inadequate, etc.). We can then model a healthy way of dealing with it (ie. talking it out, exercising, listening to music, and NOT isolating or lashing out in anger).
4. We can validate our kids’ feelings, rather than downplaying them. Even if the feelings seem childish, silly, ridiculous, selfish, or out of place,
You don’t give in any ground by simply accepting that your kid feels the way he does, but it sends a clear message to your kid: you are an ally he can tell his feelings to, even when you disagree with his feelings.
Remember, emotion isn’t weakness, and bottling it up and pretending it’s gone isn’t “taking control.” Strength builds when we channel our emotions, not when we cut them off and pretend they have stopped. So many people simply say, “I’m not an emotional person.” It’s just not true. Humans are emotional creatures by nature;
the question is whether we will learn to feel, express, and manage our emotions. THAT is strength.