elevating child care

Should We Share Our Feelings With Babies?

This provocative question came up in a parents’ discussion I led recently about establishing healthy boundaries. I was responding to a mom’s query about dealing with her toddler son pulling her hair. I encouraged her to try to stay calm while she kindly, but definitively stopped him. I suggested she take his hand away or put him down and say something simple like, “I won’t let you pull my hair. It hurts me.”

No, it isn’t fun to have our hair ripped out, and we may not be able to suppress a scream or our anger. We aren’t robots. But if we lose it, lecture or plead, we can make the experience too exciting, unnerving, or intriguing and cause the toddler to feel too powerful and/or create guilt. These responses can also make him want to repeat the action until the issue feels resolved.  Instead, he needs the comfort of knowing his mom won’t allow him to pull her hair — period -– and the assurance that while it’s no big deal, it shouldn’t happen again.

When we handle these situations simply, directly and with conviction, the toddler can let go (literally) and move on to more productive activities. He may be upset, but he feels relieved of that particular distraction (though it may take several repetitions before he finally puts it to rest). “Phew! I won’t be given the power to hurt my mom. That’s settled.”  When toddlers don’t receive the consistent and conclusive answers they need, the tests and power struggles can continue, sometimes for years.

During this discussion about boundaries and hair-pulling, another parent asked, “How open and honest should we be with our babies about our emotions — pain, worry, anger, sadness, etc.?” (Not her words, but that was the gist.) Her question got us all thinking.

Most of us desire an honest relationship with our children. Honesty, trust and authenticity are integral to Magda Gerber’s child care approach, and most of us are committed to modeling those values. But can we always be our whole authentic selves without infringing on our child’s well-being, without shaking his sense of security? Don’t children need us to be strong? Where do we draw the line?

When we can, I believe it’s best to temper our darker emotions in the presence of very young children, while finding a way to release them thoroughly elsewhere. And I don’t see that as being inauthentic. It can be frightening for children to have their parents rage, sob or fall apart, or lean on them for emotional support (when they need it be the other way around). But telling our children, even our babies (especially our babies), in simple terms what’s going on when we’re upset is necessary, in my opinion, and here’s why…

Children know

I have 3 kids who, for different reasons, don’t seem particularly sensitive to my feelings these days. One needs to push me away in preparation to separate — she’ll be leaving the nest for college soon. Another is in the throes of adolescence and committed to rejecting mommy regularly (which is easier for me to understand the second time around). The third child is a gregarious, athletic boy who relates to the world with his physical exuberance. So, I’m always taken aback when I realize how tuned in they are to me. When I’m pensive, distracted, or a little down they’ll immediately ask, “Are you okay?”

Babies can’t ask, but they need to know, because they are fully aware that something’s amiss. If you have the slightest doubt about a baby’s sensitivity and awareness, please read this article by Lisa Sunbury at Regarding Baby and watch the video. It’s tough to watch, but you’ll be astounded.

Resolves mystery and eases worry

So, if from early infancy onward children sense our feelings, how does it affect them when we’re upset or troubled? I found this explanation concerning older, more verbal children at hospicenet.org:

We express ourselves by what we do, by what we say, and by what we do not say. When we avoid talking about something that is obviously upsetting, children often hesitate to bring up the subject or ask questions about it. To a child, avoidance can be a message – “If Mummy and Daddy can’t talk about it, it really must be bad, so I better not talk about it either.” In effect, instead of protecting our children by avoiding talk, we sometimes cause them more worry and also keep them from telling us how they feel.

A baby sees his parents as incredibly important, somewhat godlike figures, and when we’re upset, even a tad anxious, it’s indeed unnerving and stressful. The baby may even wonder, “Gosh, could these tense, mysterious feelings be about me…something I’ve caused?

Have you ever been in a mad rush to go somewhere and tried to diaper or dress a baby in a hurry? It seems maddeningly ironic when the baby resists, maybe cries and is far less cooperative than usual, but it’s no accident. Our babies are very sensitive to our stress. I’ve found it better to admit, “I’m sorry, but I’m worried we’ll be late for the doctor appointment, and we have to rush.” (Then maybe make a game out of rushing.)

Social emotional intelligence

Making sense of one’s emotional life is an ongoing process, but since experts agree that social-emotional intelligence is a key element to reaching our potential, it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

By telling children what’s on our mind, labeling our emotions for them, we help them begin the process of recognizing and sorting through feelings. Best to keep it short and simple. We might say, for example, “Sorry I spoke to you loudly. I’m really angry that the neighbors let their dog run loose. It isn’t safe.” Or, “I’m worried and sad about grandma. She’s sick.”

Helps us clarify feelings and self-calm

The beauty of letting our children into our emotional world is that by framing our feelings for our child, we clarify them for ourselves. Expressing ourselves this way can have a calming effect and help us to gain perspective on the situation.

Helps restore trust if we “lose it.”

In The Emotional Life of the Toddler, psychologist author Alicia Lieberman, Ph.D., shares an interesting perspective. Although she doesn’t “necessarily advocate” a parent’s loss of control, Lieberman notes: A parent’s outburst can be actually helpful for toddlers because it teaches them that they do not need to control themselves all the time.

The important question is what to do after the parent has lost her temper. Here, language can be of enormous help because it enables parent and child to discuss together what happened “when mommy and daddy got so angry.”

No matter how righteous a parent’s anger, it is always frightening to the child.   This fear can be made more manageable by explaining how mommy or daddy felt, asking the child how he felt, and reassuring him that he is loved even when the parent is angry at him. When children can find meaning in difficult experiences, their sense of security is temporarily shaken but not permanently impaired. They learn that closeness is restored after the tempers calm down.

Lieberman continues: Telling the child “I am sorry” can spare her undeserved shame, reassure her that she is not to blame, and shore up her self-esteem. Of course, this only happens when parents mean what they say.

As our children grow and understand more, we can feel freer to express our more complex feelings and encourage them to share theirs. And by all means, don’t hesitate to share all the good stuff!

Thoughts?  Feelings? I’d love to hear them…

(I share more in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, now available in Spanish!)

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19 Responses to “Should We Share Our Feelings With Babies?”

  1. avatar Gina Osher says:

    I got something really helpful out of this post (well, I got a lot of helpful things, but one in particular was just what I needed today): “But if we lose it, lecture or plead, we can make the experience too exciting, unnerving, or intriguing and cause the toddler to feel too powerful and/or create guilt. These responses can also make him want to repeat the action until the issue feels resolved.”

    I have been locked in a frustrating cycle with my 4-year old twins where they literally push me until I crack. I knew on some level that my crazy reaction was exacerbating the issue, but this really drove it home. Thank you so much.

    On a better note, I learned very early on that apologizing when I am not my best self really helps repair any damage that might otherwise occur. How can I expect them not to yell when frustrated if I do it myself? I have to acknowledge my misstep and show them that I can do better. Plus, verbalizing my growing frustration actually helps cool me down before I do lose it.

    Every day I am working on doing this mom job a little bit better. Thanks for all your help & guidance! 🙂
    -Gina

    • avatar janet says:

      Gina, I hope you’ll give yourself a break about the “cracking”. You are such a wonderful mom. It’s challenging, but so helpful when we can set limits way before we get to the cracking point. It usually means saying, “Yes, I know you really want to do/or not do such-in-such, but NO,” and then hearing a child’s complaints and cries (or in your case, complaints and cries times 2!) Often, as I’m sure you know, it helps to give a consequence/choice like, “If you brush your teeth right away we’ll have time for TWO stories.”

      I love: “verbalizing my growing frustration actually helps cool me down before I do lose it.” Such great insight and a wonderful tool.

      Thank you, Gina!

    • avatar Marcy says:

      My daughter, now five, sometimes has these projects where it seems like she’s trying hard to find the place where I crack — and then once I’ve gone over that edge, she seems oddly reassured — almost like she needs to know that I’m not a wall, not a solid immovable thing, but a vulnerable person. I don’t think it’s good to crack “on purpose,” but I think I can rest and worry less about when it happens — I *am* a person, and I *do* have limits, and it’s okay when we find out they’ve been reached.

  2. This is very helpful to me, Janet. As hard as I try, I sometimes lose my temper with my boys and yell (although I’m happy to say that other RIE techniques have helped me work through situations with much less frustration, so the episodes happen much less often). I don’t know why exactly it feels unnatural when I apologize. I think maybe it’s because I feel so guilty about it. It’s hard for me to believe that I can have moments when I feel like a terrible mother but still have my kiddos turn out ok.

    • avatar janet says:

      Dear Suchada… We all make mistakes and have many moments when we feel like terrible mothers. It’s normal and okay. Saying sorry means going to a very vulnerable place…at least for me. Today I apologized to my 14 year old for being impatient with her tears sometimes, when they seemed to me like an overreaction. I felt terrible when I realized I had done that — SHEESH! I should know better! But it had been a reflexive response in the moment. Share that vulnerable place with your boys and they’ll adore you even more than they do already.

  3. avatar Abigail says:

    So timely that I bumped into this article. I was just wondering this tonight. Normally I am a very calm controlled person, but I’m going through a tough divorce, and tonight while holding my 6-month-old and making supper for my 3-year-old, I just started sobbing. Both kids were scared and all I could say was, “I’m sorry, mama is sad.” My 3-year-old came up with several “reasons” that mama was sad, which were so cute, it got me laughing again… Anyway, I hoPe I don’t scar them for life!

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Abigal! I love your 3 year old coming up with “reasons”! That says so much… Our children really do want to get a handle on the things they don’t understand, especially regarding their all-important mommies. A few simple words of explanation are sometimes all that’s needed to ease a child’s mind. This also reminds me of one of the many joys of parenting… In difficult times our children often do suprise us by providing comfort. They bring us back into the moment with their engaging, spontaneous and authentic reactions and responses.

      Happy Mother’s Day!

    • avatar Danielle says:

      I’m so sorry about your divorce and all the stressful things that come with it. You will get through it. Think about 5 Christmases down the road, this year will be in the past.

  4. avatar Nadine says:

    Hi Janet,

    Thank you so much for this article again – right on time. The biting has stopped but the hair pulling just started and yeah – it’s difficult not to scream but it is even more difficult what to tell the little Lman and how. So here I have some suggestions, thanks !!!

    I also remember when I was a child and my mom was looking really angry or sad I kept asking her what’s wrong. She would always say “nothing” which made me angry and sad. She wanted me to trust her, to tell her things but she wouldn’t do it the other way round. And while I sensed that she was far from being happy I kept asking her over and over again until she was annoyed with me and I got really confused. So I really think it is important to say how we feel, but I guess it’s not always important to explain why, especially when it’s problems that could overstrain the child. So yeah… a fine line to walk on but in the end honesty does win I think.

    Thanks again for this excellent post!

    • avatar janet says:

      Nadine, fantastic insight about you and your mother. Thanks so much for sharing these enlightening memories.

  5. avatar Nina says:

    what an excellent article, thank you. I’ve been stressed out, lost my job, my house, moved in with family (awful) across the country, back across the country and with friends and money worries and I know it shows. I do try to tell my son, who is 3.5, I’m worried ab out this but its not you and you haven’t done anything wrong…if I can’t get into playing or something he wants to do (often make-believe). I do talk to him about how we all can control ourselves and we need (both of us) to come up with alternatives to shouting or hitting (him) when we are upset or angry and we role play that not in the moment. I recall when I was getting advice on breast feeding the specialist kept saying relax, watch your face…your baby sees your face and responds to that. I don’t think my face, in repose, is naturally happy looking as I often have people ask me if I’m angry when I am not so I make an effort to make sure I am smiling. not grinning like an idiot but trying to keep my face more pleasant looking for my son. recently, he’s wanted to practice mad, sad, happy, etc faces…he wants me to do it and wants to do it himself. its part of us recognizing how our actions (even our facial expressions) we control and though its okay to express our emotions we also need to be aware of how that expression affects others. he often asks why my face looks the way it does even when I’m unaware of how it looks…

  6. avatar Alessandra says:

    That was fun..typing in the word and hearing the word!

    My comment to this is simple…
    saying “I’m sorry” to a child is so meaningful and so great that it lasts a life time.

    Ahhh, if adults would just treat children with respect and realize that they are “people too” and listen to them…….

  7. avatar Owen Marcus says:

    Good post. From working with many men and women over the years I would emphasize that babies particularly feel your emotions regardless of your expression. We all need to express, it may not be in front of our babies.

  8. Great post, Janet- such an important topic.

    I think the level of explanation you give must be related to both the age and intellectual/social development level of your child. I went through a true annus horribilis when my son was 2 and a half- a dying mother, an imploding marriage and a political crisis with bullying at work- and there was no way I could pretend not to be sad. I had always explained everything to my gifted son, and this was no exception. We talked about death, we talked about anger, we talked about bullying, and the very act of trying to put things in the simplest terms was calming for me. These days I have a son who has absolutely no hesitation in sharing his feelings with me, and no shame associated with sadness or anger.

    I also wanted to share that I remember very vividly a time when my mother went into hospital when I was twelve. I was told nothing, but lived in an atmosphere of anxiety and silence for an unforgettable week. I would NEVER, NEVER do that to a child of mine.

  9. avatar Katelynn says:

    Do you have any suggestions for screaming outbursts? My 3 year old daughter likes to scream and yell when we get in the car , I usually redirect her and we sing songs. But I just read your post about redirecting and I really liked it. What do you think I could say to ask her about her feelings in this situation? (She is obviously wanting more attention) thanks so much!!!

    • avatar Beth says:

      Something to start with would be to ask her, “I’ve noticed you yell a lot when we get in the car. Is there something that bothers you about being in there?” and explore from there… It could be that she doesn’t like being strapped in one place, or, if you feel she’s wanting more attention, maybe she feels that it’s strange that you and she can’t make eye contact while in the car. And of course, if you can figure out what exactly is bothering her, you can come up with a logical, specific solution (though I think redirecting her to use her voice appropriately by singing instead of yelling is a good idea in the meantime).
      Another thing I say to my daughter when she’s yelling or whining is, “I can tell you’re upset, and I want to help you, but I need you to take a few deep breaths and calm down so you can tell me what you need. I can’t understand you when you’re yelling/whining.” It takes her a minute, but it usually works.

  10. avatar Annie says:

    Hi, I was unexpectedly diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer in the last few months and have a highly verbal 2-year-old. Would love any resources/ideas about how to frame this for my sweet little boy.
    Thanks for any thoughts!

  11. avatar Iva says:

    Hi,
    I was wondering about expressing feelings after our kid acts out. For example if she hits me. Is using something like “That made me feel sad” using guilt and putting too much emotional pressure? That was my initial reaction. But what about the fact that certain action make people feel certain way? Thank you!

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