Why it's important to be open about your feelings as a parent

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Mommy’s doing fine, she’s just a little tired. Look, she’s smiling, right? And daddy is always strong, he never cries. Most parents put a lot of effort in hiding their own pain and sadness from the children. They don’t show their emotions, because they don’t want to burden their offspring with grown-up trouble. But how wise is that? 

There was a time when my kids were aged 1 and 4 years old and I was processing grief over a broken family. The tricks I had always used to hide my feelings from them at difficult times, didn’t work anymore. I just couldn’t glue the fake smile onto my face, couldn’t manage to make phony jokes, couldn’t produce the high-pitched voice (the higher, the more tired I used to be). There was just too much pain. I couldn’t help but show how I was feeling. 

‘Don’t cry, mommy’ 

I just expressed my sadness, constantly telling my children that it wasn’t their fault, that I was strong enough to get through it, and that it would pass. Sometimes I cried, often without noticing it. My sons full sentence, without even turning towards me from the child’s seat, was: ‘Don’t cry, mommy’. It wasn’t until I touched my cheeks that I noticed they were wet. 

After a few weeks, I managed to save my tears until they had gone to sleep. After a couple of months, they saw me laugh every now and then. And after a year, I had regained calmth, strength and the pounds I had lost, and I was able to genuinely enjoy things again. My daughter seemed to follow the process of grief and recovery with curiosity. She had seen her mother tumble and fall, saw her hurt and then pick herself up again. So that’s how it’s done.

Show them how you’re bearing pain

As parents, we’d love to prevent our children from all the suffering. ‘I would take it from you if I could,’ I heard myself tell my daughter a while ago, about her eczema. I meant it, but at the same time I know it’s not my job. Instead of taking away her pain, I better show her how to bear it herself. 

By the way, one might wonder whether it’s possible to fool children. You may think you’re successfully hiding your feelings, but children sense so much more than we know. Little pitchers have big ears. And if your grief is off-topic, because you hide it or deny it, they’ll start drawing their own conclusions, based on their fears. Or they take it personally, the way children do (‘Mommy is sad because I was cheeky the other day’). 

Resilience and self-love

It’s not OK to burden your children with everything you go through as an adult, because that way you create an unsafe environment. But if you structurally hide your painful emotions, you implicitly tell your kids pain and grief are shameful and weak. You have to be happy, or at least act like you are, or there’s something wrong with you. Psychologist Dirk de Wachter says: ‘The art of living is learning how to be unhappy,’ and I agree with him. Somewhere along the road, life will knock your children down. By showing them that it’s possible to create a space for pain and disappointment, you teach them that emotions are not the end. You give them two valuable presents: resilience and self-love.

Text: Susan Smit – Photo:  Bruno Nascimento