A parent writes that she and her husband are concerned their toddler feels responsible for their emotions. This is a trait they both recognize from their own backgrounds. “He asks, again and again, ‘Happy, Mommy?’ as if he’s trying to help me be happy.” This mom says that if she admits that, no, she is not entirely happy at the moment, he gives her hugs and cuddles and persists in asking if she’s happy. While these parents want to foster their child’s empathy and sensitivity, they don’t want him taking on the burden of other people’s emotions. They’re hoping Janet has some advice to help manage this delicate balancing act.
Transcript of “When Children Seem Troubled by Our Emotions and Moods”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. So today I’m going to be responding to a question from a parent who is concerned that her son may be feeling responsible for her and her husband’s emotions. She wants to relieve him of that pressure and also encourage empathy. And while I’m going to be speaking to the specifics in this situation, there are several themes that come up through this family’s letter that apply to so many of us as parents. And I’m thinking, I’m hoping that there will be themes in this podcast for everybody to relate to.
Okay. Here’s the email I received:
Hi, Janet. My husband and I have been following your podcast and blog since our son was about three months old. He’s now 28 months. While we have definitely had our challenges, pandemic not included, I can’t imagine any other way to parent him. He’s blossomed into an extremely sensitive, smart, and sweet toddler.
I’ve had so many beautiful successes with him that I can credit specifically to learnings from you. I’ve tried my best to be as honest as possible, appropriately for his age, about what I am feeling in supporting and validating his own experience of emotions.
Recently, the past two or three months, now that he has the language skills to express, he has started verbalizing his attunement much more to our emotions and begun asking me, ‘Are you happy, Mommy?’ frequently. In an attempt to not hide my emotional experience from him and pretend like I’m happy all the time, sometimes I will say, ‘Honestly, I’m not happy right now, sweetie, and that’s okay. Sometimes we can’t be happy all the time. It’s okay to feel,’ and she puts in parentheses, ‘(sad, mad, et cetera). He will ask several more times in that setting and ask to give me hugs and cuddles after which he asks again, ‘Happy, Mommy?’ as if he’s trying to help me be happy.
Both my husband and I come from family backgrounds where we took responsibility for our parents’ emotions. So becoming parents has really pushed us to re-parent and heal ourselves. I suffered from a pretty intense period of postpartum depression and anxiety until my son was about eight months old, which was when the pandemic hit. We also had a slew of other challenges surrounding this period of time so the first year of his life was quite stressful. I worry that between the major life stressors coupled with my early emotional distance during his infancy that he is starting to take on the same roles my husband and I did as children by feeling responsible for our emotions. I also should note that I study emotions and emotional regulation so I perhaps am hyper-aware because of my professional background. My question to you is, how do we continue to foster his empathy and sensitivity, which is exhibited to our pets, his stuffies, other children, while also ensuring he doesn’t take on the burden of everyone’s emotions?
I’m fully aware too that perhaps this level of empathy is something I’m personally uncomfortable with and need to acknowledge in myself. Thanks for all that you do.
Okay, well, thank you to this parent for reaching out and your kind support and, again, I love these questions and this story because there are just so many themes here that I relate to personally and I think others will too.
This parent is like many that I am so privileged to be able to connect with online and work with, sometimes just commenting back and forth in threads on social media or in a phone call, sometimes meeting in person, parents that are doing this brave, brave thing: re-parenting out of passionate love for their children and wanting to do it differently, wanting to do it better, wanting to break generational cycles sometimes. It’s laudable, laudable work that, again, so many of you are doing and I’m deeply impressed.
One of the interesting things that happen to us when we’re on this kind of journey, because we develop certain interests personally as people, is that we have areas that are really, really important to us that we want to perhaps do differently than our parents did with us, improve on. And what happens is, ironically, those areas we’re committed to, that are important to us, are very often the ones that can trip us up as parents. And by trip us up I mean make it harder for us to see clearly, harder for us to be objective about what’s going on. They can muddle us or we can get stuck there. And I think that might be a little bit what’s happening with these wonderful parents because let’s go to the specifics here….
She’s noticing that her son is very attuned and seems concerned about his mother’s happiness. He’s asking if she’s happy. And then when she tells him, “Honestly,” which is wonderful, “I’m not happy right now, sweetie, and that’s okay. Sometimes we can’t be happy all the time. It’s okay to feel sad, mad, et cetera…” That’s the lesson that we do want children to learn. So she’s communicating that lesson to him.
But let’s look at this another way, imagining that our child seems unhappy. Perhaps we say to him, “What’s wrong? Are you okay?” And he says, “Actually, I’m not happy right now, Dad or Mom, and that’s okay. Sometimes we can’t be happy all the time. It’s okay for me to feel sad or mad.”
How are we going to feel about that? Especially with our child, we do feel so responsible for their happiness, right? We adore them. So how are we going to feel? Is that going to satisfy us? He’s not happy, and that’s okay. Is that really how we’re going to feel?
I can say for myself I would not feel comfortable with that. I would want to know why my child is unhappy. And, of course, if it had anything to do with me or something I’d done, I would want to know about that and I would be concerned.
Once I got an explanation that made me realize that it was out of my control… Let’s say he said, “Oh, my friend said he didn’t want to play with me.” As hard as that is for me, I still don’t want you to feel that, but then I could give the message or hear the message, “Yeah, it’s okay to feel disappointed about that. It’s okay to feel sad about that.”
When we turn this around to the situation that she’s sharing here, it’s even more intense because we are so powerful in our children’s lives. We’re gods and our feelings set the tone for his world. Am I safe? Can I be comfortable or not? So we have incredible power. Sometimes it can feel like we give our children that power too, but we definitely have it as parents in our child’s eyes.
So he’s concerned: Yikes. This important, magical person in my life is not happy. Are they not happy with me? And right there, what we can do instead of saying, “I’m not happy all the time and that’s okay and you should accept that,” we can give some brief explanation as to our feelings. That will help a lot.
So, “Huh, I think you’re noticing that I don’t seem so happy. It’s not really that I’m unhappy, but I’m distracted worrying about the keys that I can’t find,” or, “the problem that your grandmother’s having or grandfather’s having with their health.”
Something, so that he can understand his world a little better instead of just being afraid. It’s scary, again, when this powerful person has a bit of dark cloud going on.
And I think if these parents can see beyond their concerns based on this wonderful work they’re doing to re-parent themselves and not repeat the experience that they had as children, if they can let go of that fear and understand why he’s asking about this, why he’s concerned, it makes sense. It makes sense that he wants his parents to be happy. And if they’re not then he can’t really just go on and accept that and be fine. But if he knows what it’s about and that it’s not about him, then he can feel a little better.
He still may ask again. That’s how much they want us to be happy. And that doesn’t mean that we fake our feelings. It just means giving a little context for them and then looking at — this is the really important part — looking at… is something to do with my child making me unhappy? Is his behavior making me unhappy?
And, again, that’s human and we’re okay for feeling that. But it’s definitely something to look at because it may be that we’re not setting the boundaries that we need to set, that we’re saying yes to things that we really don’t want to do, and then we’re getting annoyed inside because we’re trying to please him. Or it may be that we’ve just taken on too much in our hopes to keep him stimulated or give him attention. Or we may not be understanding some behaviors that he has and taking them personally instead of understanding that our children can only behave as well as they feel and as well as they’re capable of in any given moment.
And if their behavior is off then it could be all these child challenges and stresses that she’s talking about. It could be some of those. So not taking that on in a way that we feel like failures or we feel like it’s at us instead of simply about him and how he’s feeling in that moment.
So if we are getting annoyed and angry or sad because of our child, then we want to explore that. Because, again, we’re not at fault, but there’s no way that our child cannot, unfortunately, be scared by that and discomforted by that. Our children more than anything just want us to be okay, just need us to be okay. It’s that baseline for them so that they can go through all the changes and emotions and fluxes that they need to go through.
If we are feeling overwhelmed by life or situations that are happening, we also do our best to get the help that we need. Share it with a partner. Share it with a friend. Vent those with people that can understand them and hear us and support us. Because, unfortunately, that can’t really be our children all the time. I mean, they can step up to that challenge sometimes, but that can’t be their job to contain all our feelings. And that’s absolutely what this parent doesn’t want, because that’s her question here:
How can they continue to foster his empathy and sensitivity while also ensuring he doesn’t take on the burden of everyone’s emotions?
Be clear about her emotions with him, give him some context, and then allow him to have his emotions about her emotions. So if he’s uncomfortable when she’s unhappy, that’s got to be okay.
Another way I could really geek out and look at this is that, well, is he responsible for being okay about her being unhappy? Is he responsible for her feelings in that way, about making her feel better about being unhappy with him, that it shouldn’t bother him? I mean, I know that’s getting probably way too in the weeds, but that’s what I find really intriguing — the layers here.
So yeah, we want to show him that it’s okay to feel sad by allowing him to feel unhappy, not trying to rush to fix it, or getting uncomfortable ourselves around that, knowing that that’s a healthy part of life. That’s how we teach him it’s okay to have those feelings.
Then when we do have them, sharing them exactly like she did but giving a little context.
So the way that I would handle this in the moment is if he said, “Happy, Mommy?” And let’s say I was unhappy about something that he did, I would still look at my part in it when I explained it to him. I would say something like: “Yeah, I’m just a little tired today and when you wouldn’t clean up your toys when I asked you to, it did make me a little sad. But I know that you were tired too.” And maybe there’s even some repair there. “I’m sorry if I took my mood out on you in some way,” if that’s appropriate. It may or may not be.
So, again, back to this understanding that these things we are invested in personally will be the most difficult ones for us to see around. I think this parent nailed it herself when she said: because she studies emotions and emotional regulation, perhaps she’s hyper-aware because of her professional background.
Yes, this is important to her so it’s harder to be open to seeing that this is okay for him to feel this way and looking at why. We can get a little stuck in the “Uh-oh.” Uh-oh, I don’t want him to feel like that. I don’t want him to feel responsible for my emotions like my parents did so I want to make sure he knows that it’s okay for me to be unhappy and to get that lesson.
Her question about empathy… so empathy is developing very well here. The fact that he shows empathy and sensitivity toward his pets and his stuffies and other children and, most of all, his parents’ feelings. That’s everything to a child. So putting that in perspective I think will help.
And, again, we don’t want to discourage it because he just wants to know. He wants to understand, “What’s going on with you? Why are you not happy? Is there anything I can do? Can I make this better? Is this about me?” He’s got beautiful instincts and wonderful empathy, so that’s happening well.
Developing empathy is about modeling it and trusting. That’s it. We model empathy. We are empathic towards our children and towards other people. It’s part of us. And we trust his development.
He’s like all young children, very tuned in and he cares and he wants you to feel better. That’s what he’s supposed to do.
Some of the other common issues, there are so many of them that come up in my work with parents, reflect this idea of it being tougher when we care about it a lot. Things like the parent is a big volunteer in organizations and a very charitable person and her child goes through a selfish period. Her child seems ungrateful.
Or gender neutrality is very important to a parent and when his daughter seems to be wanting to wear princess dresses and high heels, it’s disconcerting. Or a parent remembers being completely ignored as a child, didn’t have their parents’ attention ever, and now their child is asking them to play with them constantly, and they don’t want to say no. They can’t see where the boundary can be there because they’re so afraid of their child feeling like they did. Or maybe they always felt shy around other people and now they see this happening with their child. They see some reticence with their child in social situations and they want to encourage them to get out there.
So how can we counter all these natural tendencies that we have as parents to get stuck and not able to see clearly in these areas that are important to us? What we can do is keep one thing in mind.
So, for example, in this story, when the child says, “Are you happy, Mommy? Happy, Mommy?” and we feel ourselves going to that uh-oh place, practice understanding and seeing our child clearly as always in a process.
As parents, we tend to see things in a very fixed way: Oh no, he’s responsible for my emotions. Oh no, my child is this or too that. This is getting repeated. When we feel ourselves going there, try to remember it’s a process, a constant process of growth, learning, understanding, developing empathy, developing an understanding of the world, their world, most importantly, relationships. Children are constantly in motion in their development. Everything’s a process.
When our child is saying that word we don’t want them to say that we feel is a bad word, and for some parents, that’s “stupid” or “hate”, they’ve heard it and they’re just processing it. And there’s often a lot of empathy involved. Why would this person have said this to me? What was behind that? That’s what they’re exploring. Everything they do is this beautiful, healthy, learning, exploring, processing. So it’s safe for us to practice being open to it.
So when he says “Happy, Mommy?”
“You’re wondering if I’m happy. It seems like you’re noticing I’m in a not good mood.”
It can help to just focus on: they’re always in a process, practicing seeing it that way.
And then Magda Gerber gave us this simple practical tool: just acknowledging. This helps us to pause and see our child, understand it’s a process, not jump to a conclusion or a fixed idea or an uh-oh.
“Huh, you’re asking if I’m happy. You’re concerned about that.” That’s all we have to say, just what we see right there in front of us.
And then if our child wants to cuddle us or he asks us again: “You’re really wanting to help me feel better. Thank you. Seems like you’re noticing that I’m still not feeling that well. And now I am feeling better.”
Or maybe if you’re not, then you’d say, “I’m still working with this issue, but I’m sure I’ll feel better soon. Thank you, my love.” Just reflecting it back.
Trust your child. Trust their process.
And she says, “Perhaps this level of empathy is something I’m personally uncomfortable with and need to acknowledge in myself.” This is another gift of children. Your son is here to help you with that if you can just stay open. He’s here to give you and teach you this: to be comfortable with all the deep, sensitive, vulnerable parts of life and parts of him.
I hope some of that helps.
And please check some of my other podcasts on my website janetlansbury.com. There are 200-and-something of them at this point and they’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And I have two books, they’re available at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them in eBook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com, and in audio at Audible.com. Actually, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.
Thank you so much for listening and all your kind support. We can do this.