Is it a good idea to hide negative emotions from your children? Part #1


In the next 2 posts, I will address the issue of what, where and how a parent (or grandparent) should express the emotions they feel in front of a child.

This is part #1 and part #2 will publish in 2 weeks.

The other day I was consoling a friend of mine  whose wife had recently passed away.  As we were discussing the grief he was feeling, he began to cry and his grandson questioned if he was “okay”.  My friend responded that he was trying to be “strong”.

I suggested that he tell his grandson that he was “feeling  sad and was missing your grandmother”.

The question about what emotions you want to share with your children has come up on the site and I think it calls attention to an important topic.

In this post, I have elaborated upon my Quora response.

This question focuses on the emotional interactions between a parent and a child and there are two parts to the question:

  • The idea of negative emotions.
  • When and how (or if) you should express emotions to your kids.

Regarding your kids and your (and their) emotions, the 3 specific issues involved are the following:

  1. What emotions should a parent express in front of a child?
  2. When should a parent express their emotions in front of a child?
  3. How should a parent express their emotions in front of a child?

There are three underlying principles here…

  • Your kids will know (or at least sense) that you are “emotional” regardless of whether you acknowledge, deny, or express those emotions.
  • You need to show your emotions to your kids so that they can learn what emotions are and how to appropriately express them. This is called modelling. It is also being open and honest.
  • When it comes to your kids, you need to tailor the message about emotions to your kid’s abilities to accept and understand the message so that you don’t give them more information than they can handle based on their age, intelligence, and experience. This is called matching. It is also being respectful and considerate.

But first, let me address the issue of negative emotions…

The original Quora question addressed the idea that a parent might want to hide “negative” emotions from their kids.

While it is true that you do want to monitor what and how you express emotions to your kids (as I will discuss below), the reason you want to do this is NOT (emphasis added) because some emotions are negative.

The basis for this myth is that some emotions do not feel good and, therefore, are labelled as negative. The danger of the myth is that it implies that some emotions should be eliminated (Think a negative eval at work or a negative balance in your checkbook.).

Indeed, there are no negative emotions.  All emotions are just tools that, when you learn to master them, can be strategically deployed to improve your life and your relationships!

When you eliminate an emotion, you deprive yourself of the information and power that emotion provides.

Back to my friend and expressing emotions.

Interestingly, I was visiting my friend because his grieving was eliciting tears, he was feeling physical pains, he really missed his wife, and he did not know whether all of this was normal or appropriate.

I assured him that all of it was part of normal grieving.

Now, my friend is a caring person and a good grandpa. He isn’t all that great with emotions.

So, when his grandson saw him crying and wondered if he was hurt, he told his son he was trying to be “strong”.

Now, while the idea that crying in men is a sign of weakness is a version of the myth of negative emotions, I don’t know if this was the basis for my friend’s comment.

The problem that I had was that the implied message to his grandson might have been that grieving needs to be avoided because it does not demonstrate “being strong”.

The bottom line for me is that the significant adults in a child’s life need to both teach these kids about emotions so that they have access to and can strategically benefit from all their emotions and honestly demonstrate how to appropriately express a wide range of emotions.

Which  takes us back to the 3 main issues noted above regarding the expression of emotions to kids.

Issue #1: What emotions should a parent express in front of a child?

A parent should attempt to express all emotion in front of their children with one major caveat:

The expression of every emotion should be within an “appropriate”range given the age and intellectual abilities of the child, the nature of the emotion, and the behavior elicited by the emotion.

I will address this in more detail below.

Issue #2:  When should a parent express their emotions in front of a child?

There are two concerns here.

The first involves the setting in which you express an emotion and the key element here is whether the setting is such that the child will connect what he or she witnesses in you with the emotion and the message that emotion conveys.  As an example, if the child has done something which appropriately elicits your anger, then get angry.  If the child is playing and doing nothing wrong, showing anger (from a previous incident) or even sadness might not be advised as the child might not be receptive to “dealing with” your emotion.

The second issue involves your feelings.  If you are “overcome” with an appropriate emotion (not connected to the kid), then you have a decision to make.

Can you express your feelings and include the kid if he or she questions it?

This is the situation in which my friend found himself.

If you can, then go with the feeling.

If not, then it is probably best if you excuse yourself and express your feelings privately.

As an example, if you are so angry (either at or independent of the child), that you are raging, you need to get out of rage before you interact with the kid.  If you are so overcome with anxiety or grief or sadness that thinking straight is difficult for you, again, stay away from the kid.