Recently a friend asked if it was okay to let her child offer comfort to her when she was upset. The scenario was her seven-year-old had walked into her bathroom and caught her crying after some particularly stressful few days. “Mommy! Mommy! Are you okay?”
This mom said her immediate instinct was to cover up her tears and reassure her child. But as she told me about the incident, we both quickly thought about a current commercial where a young who woman struggled with eczema repeatedly says, “It’s fine.” She is obviously not fine but is showing how we often feel when we need to cover up our struggles.
Now back to my friend’s question.
“Was it okay to tell her child she was indeed feeling sad and to explain there were a lot of things on her mind making her feel that way?”
In short, the answer is…yes, but with these considerations, as it can be very distressing for children when they see parents upset.
We know that young children are self-centered for about the first 10 years of their lives. Children are not being selfish but rather about feeling like the world revolves around them, in part because they really cannot yet appreciate that others have feelings.
For children, having others care for them and meet their needs is what keeps them safe and allows them to survive.
It also means that somehow they may be responsible when other people are hurting. Typically younger children feel like it’s their fault when things go badly (like when their parents are in conflict with each other, and especially if parents separate and/or divorce).
With gentle support and encouragement – which helps children mature morally – over time they gradually shift to having increased capacity for empathy and compassion. Over time, children can learn they are not the reason people around them have the feelings they do.
Meanwhile, is it okay to be honest with your children when you are struggling with something, or are feeling upset or sad?
As long as you don’t put pressure on your child to be overly caring or somehow responsible for making you happy.
We shouldn’t place any deep or unfair pressure on a child. That is called “parentification,” which is emotionally unhealthy for a child.
However, it can be helpful to allow children to offer you comfort and even give them suggestions for ways they might help you feel better. Allowing this can contribute to their abilities to learn about caring for others. Also, giving them a few specific things they can do to help with easing some of your sadness or struggle is a way to empower them.
Certainly, we need to teach them that as human beings, we do have the power to make others feel connected, cared about and loved.
What my friend said was, “Mommy is feeling sad right now. Just like sometimes you feel sad when you can’t do everything you want to do…And when you are disappointed about things, it helps when someone offers a hug or even invites the person to hold the teddy bear that helps you when you feel sad.”
Being honest with kids when they recognize you are struggling helps them to learn to trust their abilities as they assess the feelings of others.
Giving specific ways to offer comfort encourages children to learn how we care for each other as human beings.
We can’t always keep people from feeling sad, disappointed or frustrated, but we can offer messages of understanding and comfort. We can even do for someone else what brings comforts to us, like sharing a teddy bear.
Invitation to Reflect
- Do you remember a time when you saw one of your parents crying or looking sad? How did it make you feel? Where they open with you or did they try to cover up their sadness?
- How does it feel when someone honestly lets you know that they are indeed feeling sad, instead of saying “It’s fine,” when it obviously is not? How does it feel when someone lets you offer them comfort?
- Can you picture being able to let your child in on how you are feeling, including those times when you are feeling sad? What are some things you might suggest that your child do to bring you some comfort in those moments when you are feeling sad?
Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Insititue