Kids can be extremely intuitive when it comes to reading parents’ feelings, especially feelings of angst, sadness, anxiety, fear or concern. “Mommy, what’s wrong with you?” “Daddy, why are you so sad?”
What is a good way to answer their curious questions?
Many times parents respond with statements like, “I’m fine! There’s nothing wrong! Don’t be silly—everything is okay.”
But are things really okay?
Of course, there are things children don’t need to know about. They don’t need to hear the details when parents are dealing with something that is very upsetting.
The problem, however, is that when parents tell children there is nothing wrong, it can be very confusing because children recognize that their parent is struggling with something. Yet the parent is telling the child to ignore their intuitive sense
Children can often look past the fake smiles of a concerned parent.
However, they become anxious because they don’t know what is going on and then are told not to trust their own feelings.
Part of what makes children so anxious when they see parents upset is that they know innately their survival depends on the well-being of their parents.
If something is wrong with their parents, it can feel like they, the children, are in danger.
When parents discount children’s intuitive sense that something is wrong, the children need to wrestle with both their fear that they are somehow in danger (because something is wrong with their parents) and they really can’t talk about it because their parents have shut them down.
Children now have to wrestle with their concerns on their own instead of being able to talk about their feelings because parents have denied they are upset. It can be a real dilemma for a child!
It is more helpful to be honest that something is indeed troubling you. If you can be general, give some kind of explanation. “You are right. I am feeling upset right now. I am worried because I can’t figure out how to help Uncle John. So I am thinking a lot about that and am trying to decide what I can do.”
It is all right to tell a child that you are not going to share a lot of details.
You may not share because it is inappropriate or because you either don’t have the answers or need more time just to think about things without talking about them. At least your child knows their intuitive sense was on target. This means they can continue to trust that inner self when they sense someone is upset.
Parents also need to reassure the child of safety.
Since upset parents can be alarming to a child, it is important to provide reassurance that the child will be all right, no matter what. “It can be hard for a child to see a mommy or daddy feeling upset. You need to know that we can feel upset, and at the same time, we will take care of you and keep you safe.”
Parents can also be creative about giving kids ways to be helpful to their parents. It is encouraging to let children know that they are a source of joy even in moments when the parents are struggling with something. “Even though I’m feeling sad right now, it helps me to know how much you care about me. Just your being my precious child warms my heart and helps me not feel so sad. I could really use a hug right now!”
Empowering a child to be a source of comfort can make them feel valued.
It can also teach them we all need to connect and support one another in those times when someone in our family is struggling.
Of course, we do not want to lean on our children too much.
It is not their job to make us happy.
This is about the balancing act of acknowledging the realities they are perceiving without overburdening them with the responsibility for making us feel okay.
If you grew up in a home where your parents never let you see them upset, or if you did think they were upset, they denied it and therefore denied your intuitive sense, it can be hard to open up enough to acknowledge your children’s accurate assessment of your feelings.
Overriding the tendency to repeat family legacies is almost always a big challenge.
By understanding why it is so important to acknowledge children’s intuitive sense of someone experiencing pain or unease, you can be more confident about the importance of acknowledging that your child is, in fact, correct.
It may feel strange and awkward at first, but the benefits to your child, to you and your relationship are worth experiencing those feelings.
Invitation for Reflection
- How did your parents respond if you asked them if they were upset about something? Did you feel like they were always happy and in charge of everything going on in the family? If so, do you remember feeling confused over your own intuitive sense and what your parents were telling you?
- How do you feel about being more honest with children when they become worried or alarmed because you are upset or sad about something? Are you ready to be more honest while still keeping boundaries around how much detail you share?
Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institue