When someone’s eyes begin to water and the first teardrop trickles down their face, there’s a pretty standard response from people.
Tissues are whisked from the Kleenex box and offered. It’s a quick panacea for sadness as though dabbing the soft cotton fibers will ease emotional pain.
Well-intended words attempt to console the person crying, along with outstretched arms welcoming an embrace.
“It’s going to be okay, don’t cry.”
Or “don’t be sad.”
Sometimes the support is more like: “stop that crying and be happy.”
And “you are strong.”
In a way, these gestures, although reassuring, imply that the crying needs to hurry up and stop.
Efforts to comfort can be genuine, while still sending the message that being sad and expressing emotion through tears needs to be quickly worked through.
What happens when this is communicated to kids and teens when they cry?
If you tell your child that they have nothing to cry about, they may interpret that as: suppress emotions because they aren’t valid or how you feel doesn’t really matter.
And when parents do this, you are basically telling your child that you don’t have time for their sadness, pain or self-doubt.
How many of you have told a kid, maybe your own kid, to suck it up?
What this really means is hide your emotions and try to make those feelings go away. Not a positive coping strategy.
If you don’t listen, empathize and attend to a child’s emotional needs, it’s a surefire method to cut off communication with your kid and could further stifle the relationship during a pivotal stage of development.
The Science Behind Tears
So why should parents make it okay for their older kids and teens to cry?
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 and breakaway from the home, 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 shares “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.” (Follow Campbell on Twitter)
What you don’t want to do is completely deny yourself an opportunity to emote. Hiding how you feel can backfire, although it has its purposes.
Covering up difficult emotions can protect us from appearing vulnerable or seeming weak, but such behavior has negative implications.
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.
Research has shown that parents who suppress their difficult emotions like anger and sadness can do harm to the parent-child relationship. When the mind is preoccupied with hiding how you feel, it can make you emotionally distant. Essentially, you can become emotionally unavailable to your child.
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 1-10 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 high-point and low-point 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 optimistic 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.