Parents: What to Say When You Are Sad 

There are vast numbers of people, many of whom are parents, who are in a place of shock and grief about the election. (That is not to say there aren’t many who are excited and hopeful, but that is not my focus here.)

When parents are emotional, how might they respond to their children?

How do some children respond when they see or perceive that their parents are upset, sad, distraught, anxious (or any of the feelings that indicate parents are in a deeply emotional place of pain)?  And how should parents respond to their children who are aware of these feelings?

It is virtually impossible not to experience times of pain and loss in life. We all express our pain in our own ways. Some outwardly show feelings by crying, talking a lot about a loss, expressing anger, or by blaming others or life for being unfair. Some can become withdrawn, unapproachable, distant and disengaged from others, including our children. We can even vacillate among these, which can be very confusing to those around us.

There can be cultural norms around expressing feelings.

Some cultures are famous for outwardly expressing all feelings and others for stoicism.  Some families have norms that are more about their traditional ways of behaving that underlie beliefs about what children should and should not be privy to. “Don’t let the children see you cry – it will upset them.”  “Children don’t know it when you are sad – why talk about it if they are unaware?”

Children can be highly intuitive, some more than others. Even if they cannot verbalize their responses to parents who are behaving in these ways, they often are intuitively aware that something is wrong.

Even infants can be fussier when parents are stressed.

Parents represent safety, and children are totally dependent on parents for their survival. When parents seem either to be withdrawn and unavailable or emotionally out of control, that safety and comfort of children knowing they can count on their parents for care is affected.

This in turn can cause children to feel fearful, anxious, even terrified. Consequently, this can result in a snowball effect, when children can begin to express those feelings of anxiety while trying to redirect their parents away from their pain onto their own behaviors.

Therapists know that children often are what is called “symptom bearers.” 

You can look at the symptoms of pain and anxiety, or anger, or withdrawal in children and suspect that these children are somehow mirroring the pain they are seeing and experiencing in their family.

They also can act out to draw the fire to themselves in an unconscious effort to force parents to avert their self-absorption and focus on the children themselves. They might try to force their parents to unite over the need to address difficult behaviors, or to make them take charge (when those parents seem to have stepped out of their role as parents).

When feeling pain, loss, and any of the other emotions that are often considered to be negative, we cannot fully protect our children from knowing something is going on with us.  If we further try to create a sense that the child is not to talk about those emotions (or when parents tell children they are “fine” even when they clearly are not), children can get messages like, “Don’t show your sad feelings,”  “Don’t be honest about certain feelings.”

As parents, it can be hard to determine how much to share and how honest to be with children when you are experiencing powerful feelings of pain, sorrow, loss or anxiety. You don’t want to overwhelm your children so they feel you are so down that you cannot function or keep them safe. But if you deny that anything is wrong, you can confuse them and have them distrust their abilities to assess the feelings of others.

Affirm your feelings

By affirming, “Yes, Mommy is sad right now. Just like when you are sad, I need to cry,” can reassure children that they are accurately recognizing their parents’ distress. It is important to let children know that your pain and sadness will not keep you from caring for them.

“I will be okay. I can feel sad and take care of you at the same time. I might not want to be playful and I might not want to talk a lot right now. I am not mad at you. I’m here and you are safe.” It is important to add that feelings are temporary. “I am sad now but in a while I will feel happy again.”

Younger children do not need details. It is important not to parentify children so they feel they have to take care of you.

Sad times are opportunities to model ways to accept and express feelings, to invite sympathy and empathy, to show that we can feel sadness and still function, and that we will recover.  These are things we all need to remember for ourselves as well as teach them to our children.

Please note: if you experience deep sadness, despair or anxiety for more than a few weeks, consider getting some outside help. When we are down, it can be hard to know we deserve to be cared for, but if our distress is becoming chronic, it can be helpful to know we need to do this not only for ourselves but also for our children.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Do you remember a time when one or both of your parents seemed to be dealing with something upsetting or painful? How did it make you feel? What did they tell you about their feelings?
  2. Have your children noticed when you have been sad or upset? How have they responded to you and your behaviors?
  3. How comfortable are you with sharing more honestly with your children when you are sad or upset? What should be the boundaries for your sharing, given the ages and temperaments of your children?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network