Imagine you have just gotten off the phone with your mom, who told you that your dad is sick again. You sit down at the dining room table, head in your hands, unable to hold back the tears. Junior walks in and says, “Hey Mama … Are you okay?”
You have two choices: 1.) Perk up as much as you can, wipe your eyes, and say, “I’m fine, honey. Nothing is wrong. Don’t worry.” or 2.) Look up and say, “I’m sad right now, babe. I just talked to Grandma and Grandpa is sick. This makes me worry about him. I could sure use a hug.”
Which would you choose?
Up until about a year ago, I would’ve gone with #1 and felt like it was the right choice. I was driven to shelter my kids from any negative feelings and hide any indications of distress so that they wouldn’t feel bad themselves. I believed I was protecting them. It was part of my ‘Mom, the Martyr” complex, that I wore like a badge of honor, and I justified this by thinking that my “strength” would make them feel safe.
Now, it’s #2 all the way. I’ve learned the hard way the reprecussions of sheltering my kids and am actively working to undo the damage caused by years of “protecting” them from anything remotely unpleasant.
I was trying to help them and it ended up hurting them. They all four struggle with some degree of anxiety and inability to problem solve. And it took me 16 years to figure out.
It seems somewhat logical for us parents to believe that we shouldn’t show ‘weakness’, that we need to be rocks for our kids. That we should save those tears and fears for the bathroom we lock ourselves in to get a little peace and quiet, amiright? We are the ones they depend on to, well, stay alive and all, and it’s perfectly reasonable to arrive at the belief that they will feel more secure in the world if they think we are super human and can handle anything.
Except that we are not, and just no. Because psychology.
Here’s some very brief Psych 101:
In 1943, Abraham Maslow developed his Theory of Human Motivation, or more plainly stated, “Why people do the things they do.” Central to his theory was a pyramid of needs that people strive to meet or have met. He proposed that once a person had the needs at the bottom of the pyramid satisfied, the bottom tier being physiological needs like food and shelter, they would move up to the next level and start working to get those needs met, and so on and so on. The ultimate state of personal development for a human was what he called “self-actualization”.
Maslow categorized the bottom four strata of the pyramid “deficiency needs”, because people do not feel anything if they are met, but will exhibit anxiety if they aren’t. They are needs that are notable only by their absence. The top tier is where we find our joy and fufillment.
Now put a pin in that one and let’s quickly jump to a sociological theory that I guarantee you are familiar with: role models. We all know that kids need role models, but do we know why? Probably not. The idea behind it is “vicarious reinforcement”, which means “I saw that guy get a cookie. I’m going to do whatever he did because I want a cookie, too.” Except it not just about cookies — it’s also about meeting the needs on the pyramid.
How this plays out with kids is that they have zero experience to draw on about how the world works so they watch the adults around them and imitate what the adults do in order to get their needs met.
So now we are thinking like a kid: We have a motivation to get our needs met, if we don’t we will exhibit anxiety, and we watch the adults around us and copy their behaviors to try to meet those needs.
If your kiddo watches you (pretend to be) “okay” when faced with a difficult or stressful situation, without giving them any indication as to how “okay” is achieved, they will have the expectation that they, too, should be capable of being “okay” even when experiencing negative emotions, because they will model you. Their inability to do so will then impact their esteem needs and cause them feelings of anxiety.
Now, if you kiddo watches you express fear in a stressful situation, it’s true that that might make them fearful as well. That’s where the modeling and communication comes in. Telling your kiddo how you are feeling and how you are going to cope, gives them a model to follow when dealing with their own stressors. They get to see you have the same feelings they have and you have now given them a model for functional ways to handle it.
Simply put, if they see you struggle and overcome, they think to themselves, “I can do that, too.”
There’s one more reason this is important and, for me, this might be the most important one of all: Trust.
Kids are hella perceptive little beings. They have to be. Their awareness level is set to “hypervigilance” because they are depedent on adults for their safety and well-being. In turn, they are instinctively tuned into their parents’ emotions. So what happens when your kiddo, who is tuned into you, perceives that you are sad except, when she asks you about it, you say, “I’m not sad, kiddo. Everything is fine.”?
They start to think two things:
- ) Mom/Dad’s a liar and I can’t trust them. I am not SAFE.
- ) Maybe I’m wrong and they’re not sad and I can’t trust my own intuition. I am not SAFE.
3.) Their little imaginations run amok thinking of all of the horrible things that could be happening that you aren’t telling them about. (which circles back to them not trusting you.)
So your now kid thinks you are full of shit and are hiding things from him or her (which you are) AND they lose confidence in their ability to make judgements about what’s going on around them.
All because we think that pretending that we aren’t having negative emotions will make them feel safe.
I feel like this is a given but I’m going to say it anway: I want to be clear that it’s good for your kids to see you employing functional coping mechanisms. Let them see you cry. Let them see you deep breathe through your anger or tell them to make themselves a snack while you retreat to the bedroom for a half an hour when you’re overwhelmed. Let them see you wring your hands just before you get stabbed with a needle at the doctor. Those things are good.
Dysfunctional coping mechanisms are another story. Your kid should not be watching you drown your sorrows with a bottle of Jack and pass out on the couch. They shouldn’t watch you lay in bed for days at a time and refuse to meet their basic needs. They shouldn’t watch you scream and throw things at your spouse when you have an argument. While all of these things are “real”, this is when you remember that you are their role model and that they are going to learn from you how to handle challenge and negative emotions.
You want them to learn the functional coping, not the dysfunctional.
My best friend called me freaking out. She was in tears and speaking so quickly that I could barely understand her.
We were both mid-twenties, stay-at-home moms to small children. We both had two girls, hers few years older than mine.
“How dare that woman say that shit to me?!? How dare she insinuate I’m a bad mother for having my own fears?!? I’m allowed to have emotions, you know?!?”
Apparantly, Courtney had had a bloodwork appointment. She was terrified of needles, but she still showed up, kids in tow. She told me that had been doing a some hand wringing and a little pacing in the waiting room — coping. Yes, she was scared but when it was her turn, she sat in the chair, followed instructions and got her blood drawn. She pushed through the fear and did the thing that needed to be done.
Good job, sister.
The part that had upset her was that, as she was grimacing and bracing herself for the stick, the phlebotomist had taken it upon herself to say,
“C’mon now, Mom…You should set a better example. Little eyes are watching.”
And the littles eyes watched.
“You are right, sis. That was bullshit. She was wrong to chastise you in front of your girls and she was wrong in her premise. Your girls need to know that you are human, too.”
Courtney was right to let her kids see her scared. You know what they saw? They saw their mom be scared and still do the thing she was scared of. They saw safety in their mom. They were proud of their mom. They gained some trust in their mom and felt closer to her. And they internalized that they can do the scary things, too, because mom was an excellent role model.
And that’s what our kids need: to have role models that they trust, who can model for them how to functionally handle their negative emotions. Both of those things lead to feelings of safety that meet their needs and stave off anxiety.
And they don’t get any of those things from, “I’m okay.”