Protecting Kids from Parents’ Emotions

Sep 28, 2010

There have been many documented studies on the effects of the emotional climate of the parents affecting children. When a parent is stressed, children often realize it and behave differently. When parents fight with each other, it creates anxiety in kids. When parents discuss adult topics in front of children, such as the economy, war, terrorism, natural disasters, etc., it resonates with children that there are things in the world that don’t make sense and don’t have a logical explanation. This creates confusion and can lead to behavioral, social and emotional changes.

On a lesser scale, though, parents are often guilty of saying things out of emotion rather than cognition. In other words, in the moment what a child says or does affects us in an emotional manner, and we respond verbally without thinking about the implication of what we are saying. Let me share a recent example.

I recently took my son to the children’s area of the library. He was playing with the firehouse, and I was moving the firemen up and down the stairs while he tried to keep his balance on his feet. (We haven’t quite mastered walking yet!) A boy about eight or nine sat down at the computer a few feet away. Several minutes later, his mom walked over and watched me playing with my son. She went over and from behind wrapped her arms around his neck and tried to kiss his cheek. The boy immediately tried to squirm away, appeared to be embarrassed, and told her to stop. She replied, “No one is around to see.” Then she paused and added, “Don’t grow up and get big, okay?” He gave her a confused look and she responded, “I just want you to stay little forever”.

I assume her thought process was along the lines of seeing my son not yet walking, remembering her son being that small, thinking how fast the time went and wishing she could have it back again. All of those are appropriate and valid thoughts – but they should have been sentimental feelings kept to herself. Why, you may ask? What is the harm in telling your children that you want them to stay young?

First, children grow up. That is what they do. They spend every day from the minute they are born learning, growing and individuating from their parents. This is developmentally, socially, and emotionally appropriate. Telling a child to not do so is like telling them to stop breathing. Life doesn’t work without it.

Second, children don’ t have an emotional connection to being a baby. We look at them and remember when they loved to be held, smelled like babies, and were delicate and fragile. Kids, on the other hand, think of being young like babies as infantile and unfavorable.

Third, I have mentioned in previous articles that children work diligently to please and protect their parents. They recognize when adults expect them to accommodate needs, wants and desires and aim to do so. Unfortunately, this puts them in a very difficult place. “Do I try to stay young when it goes against everything I want to keep Mom happy? Do I ignore her wishes and make myself feel bad in the process? Do I do nothing and hope that it works out?” It is very confusing when kids take on parents’ feelings that are not their own.

In summary, we need to be very careful about letting our emotions escape out for our kids to internalize. We will always have feelings about what is happening with our children, but sometimes it is better for them not to hear them. Kids have enough pressures and stresses to handle without adding keeping us happy on top of the pile. Kids need to stay kids as long as possible, without the worries of the world, because as we all know, they grow up too fast as it is!

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