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

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’s 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, and 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!)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. 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! 🙂

    1. 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!

    2. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. So do you believe with teenagers, we should always try to honor their feelings and provide them comfort and empathy, even when the tears/anguish seems intentionally overblown or manipulative? i’m honestly asking. i don’t know – i can see both sides!

  3. 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!

    1. 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!

    2. 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. 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!

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

  5. 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. 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. 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. 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!!!

  10. 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. Nartila Marsh says:

    Hi Janet,

    In the paragraph “Children Know” you advice to read the article and watch the video, but I can’t find the video from the links you provided.

    Do you happen to have the name of it so I can research?

    Thank you,


  12. Hi Janet, your post have the ability to come to me when I need them the most, it’s funny but I always find myself asking me questions like these and then, somehow, you post about those questions… It’s some kind of magic? 😉 hahaha.. Anyways, just lately my partner and I were talking about this exact topic, should we be honest to our baby about our feelings? Like when we’re feeling angry or sad about something he did that we don’t like… I’m trying to model all this respectful parenting for him (partner) to pick up, I talk to him about it too (he does not speak english so, I have to transalate and model what I learn from you).. The last time we talked about thisexact topic, I tried to explain to him what we could do, still I was getting a little bit lost and here you just gave me sooo many answers.. Anyways, I would just like to thank you so much for your work and all this knowledge you share with us: the parents that try to make the best we can to guide awesome children to be who they’re are.

    1. Hi Karla! Wow, thank you, your note made my day! Sharing this work is my pleasure. I hope you will congratulate yourself for the thoughtful approach you are taking to raising your baby. Much love, Janet

  13. Elizabeth D. says:

    Hi Janet –

    Great article (as always) but what about something as permanent and sad as death? How would one even begin to approach this topic? What’s the proper way to show your grief to your kids? Is it different at different ages? I just always think it would be hard to talk about someone or something (like a family pet) with my child without crying myself. Sorry for the sad topic but this article got me thinking…

    1. Hi Elizabeth — Crying in front of children when we are grieving is appropriate and wonderful modeling. I would explain honestly: “Your great grandma died. Her body stopped working. That makes me sad. I will miss her.” Again, if possible, I would spare children from a huge outpouring of emotion.

      1. I have a follow up question to this that has been nagging at me for years. Thank you so incredibly much for all your parenting guidance over the years; I am constantly learning to be more respectful to my children and to better model self respect for them through your teachings!
        My question/issue is this: when my first child (now 7 years) was 3 months old, my aunt-who-was-like-a-second-mom-to-me died unexpectedly in the middle of the night following a planned, elective surgery. Upon learning it at 7am the following morning, I crumpled to the floor in dramatic, uncontrollable wailing. My husband came into the kitchen of our then tiny one-bedroom apartment trying to shush me, saying I was really upsetting our son (whom he was holding). I couldn’t calm the wave of grief I felt I was drowning in. My son’s entire first year was a very rough one for me, as I was hit by a car significantly as a pedestrian just 8 months after my aunt’s death and subsequently lost my job a few months after that (related to the car accident injuries and to new motherhood), and was generally overwhelmed and tense (in addition to being concussed and having pain from the accident with a highly physical and strong little boy who enjoyed head-butting).
        We now have worked hard to gather more stability and calm around our family, but we have serious problems and challenges helping our son learn to self-regulate, especially emotionally. I constantly return to this and a few other dramatic moments from his first two years and I feel tremendously responsible for what I fear is a wounded attachment with my son. I have a lot more internal (and circumstantial) stability now as well as a lot more parenting know-how and confidence (in no small part thanks to your teachings!), but I struggle to find ways to repair this memory after the fact. I intuitively feel I was so raw at a very impressionable, important time in my son’s development that I think we may have a lifelong healing process before us that I’m unsure of the roadmap and what my best offering can be to support my child.

  14. I have had a couple of outbursts (crying) in front of my 2yo since falling pregnant. Emotions and exhaustion have been running high. My husband and I also got into a couple of arguments in front of him. We rarely argue so he was definitely affected by it. After this happened, I made sure to talk to him about it, reassure him that we were OK, we still love each other and love him and it’s not his fault. We made sure to apologise to one another in his presence as well. I told him that sometimes I feel sad and cry too, and that I’m OK and am just expressing my sadness. Obviously not ideal to have these things happen in front of him but we are human and it does happen. I hope that by talking about it he can learn that it is normal and OK to express emotion sometimes and also that we need to talk about it afterwards when everyone is calm and express love to one another.

  15. My five-year-old has seen her share of big emotions. Her brother died of cancer a year and a half before she was born, so I was still pretty thick in my early grief and coping with trauma when she was a baby. Throw in a marriage that dissolved slowly for her first three years of life, and that made for a toddlerhood of seeing many Mommy breakdowns. I would try to hide it, but she seemed to sense when I was grieving and crying, and would come to find me.

    I know it scared her sometimes. I always spoke about it: “Mommy is sad because I miss Caemon, honey,” or “I’m sorry for raising my voice, sweetie. I was frustrated because sometimes it is hard to get both of us out of the house at the same time with no help.” And then I would snuggle her and she would feel okay. I know that in talking about it, it has made her less fearful of emotions, that when she sees other kids experiencing breakdowns, she wants to sit with them, and thus I am seeing in her what I have seen in many children born after the death of a sibling: a deeply compassionate child who has words for really big feelings and the ability to sit in that uncomfortable space from which so many of us in Western culture tend to run.

    Still, I think there is a certain amount of privilege in being able to hide big feelings from children (no, we don’t have to rage) because not every parent has the support or even the physical space to be able to go handle an emotion elsewhere or at another time (and, wow, bottling grief up for after bedtime is not something my therapist recommends), but I have seen time and again that helping her see how I cope with those big feelings, how I take big breaths, make a cup of tea, and try to calm myself is something she has integrated into her own coping. I do think there has to be room for parents to be human, to not feel horrific guilt for having big feelings in front of their kids if it happens. When we experience big, disruptive forces in our lives, it is natural for us to respond to them and not completely hide our responses, but instead show the child how we repair, whether that be ourselves or our connections with our kids.

  16. Thank you for this article. So, what about post partum depression and anxiety? I had PPD and expressed ALL the feels while home for 15 months with my daughter. Was finally helped around 6 months. Just wondering what those effects may have been on her. I am normally very collected and not a yeller (after many years of serious work on this). But PPD was a really rough time in my life and she saw all of it.

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