Do you hide your emotions from your kids?

<I></i>
 Photo: Getty Images

I'm a crier. A big, ugly, howling crier.

I have trouble containing my emotions, and I'm not talking about sobbing at tissue ads with cute fluffy chicks. I'm referring to real stuff, like trauma and illness and death; life events that truly warrant strong emotion.

When my friends or family are suffering through a hard time, I offer as much support as I can. Sometimes I get angry with them, and often I cry an empathetic river of tears. My response may not always be helpful but there is never any doubt that I feel their pain.

A very close friend of ours died of bowel cancer at only 36. I think I cried almost every day for the last month of his life, and throughout the aftermath of his death. I got out of bed every day and functioned competently through the daily necessities of working, raising children and managing a household, but I was not backwards in coming forwards when it came to grief.

Initially I tried to hide my emotions from our children. I was concerned it may frighten them, unsettle their day, or make them feel insecure. They were young and I expected they wouldn't understand. But in the end, I had to be true to myself and that was to cry openly. I explained to my kids, as best I could, that I was incredibly sad and crying was a completely normal response to sad things in life. I reassured them they would always be looked after and cared for, just like my friends' children, but sometimes bad things happen to good people.

I want my children to grow up and know it's okay to feel strong emotion and to display it. Vulnerability and imperfection do not equal weakness. The only way for me to teach this is to show it.

Brené Brown, a vulnerability researcher, has discussed this very concept extensively over the past 13 years. In her amazing TED talk on the power of vulnerability, Brown discusses our natural aversion to exposing ourselves. She espouses the only way to live "wholeheartedly" is to experience the full gamut of emotions. In her studies, she focussed on what qualities wholehearted people had that made them have a strong sense of love and belonging.

"Wholehearted people had the courage to be imperfect and they had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others."

Brown says when we numb vulnerability, we cut off connection, and connection is the very basis of human nature. In her research, Brown concluded that "[wholehearted people] had connection, and - this was the hard part - as a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do for connection."

Advertisement

Sound familiar? Trying to put on a brave face as the parent? Trying to ignore those feelings of disappointment, sadness, or frustration so as not to upset your children? We've all done it.

Editing our emotions for the sake of our children may seem like we are protecting them, but studies show this can be counterproductive. In the March 2016 edition of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, a study of 162 parents found that "parents' attempts to suppress negative and amplify positive emotions can detract from their well-being and high-quality parent-child bonds." Regulating emotions around children is one thing, but suppressing them can lead to feelings of inauthenticity.

Brown adds to this theory that you cannot selectively numb emotion. "You can't say, 'here's the bad stuff. Here's vulnerability, here's grief, here's shame, here's fear, here's disappointment. I don't want to feel these'. When we numb these we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness."

As parents, we want to be strong for our children, to be the rocks in their lives, the armour that protects them from hardship. But to teach them there is no adversity by hiding difficult times is doing them a disservice.

Brown is particularly passionate about this, "Our job is to look and say, 'You know what? You're imperfect, and you're wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging'. That's our job. Show me a generation of kids raised like that, and we'll end the problems."

What open emotion teaches not only our children, but ourselves, is that we are existing in the moment. By responding honestly and authentically we are, quite simply, being human.