When Kids See Adults Get Upset

Recently, my extended family experienced a lot of intense, collective emotions during a weekend of working together to repair fire damage done to a family member’s house. Having your house nearly destroyed is certainly a kind of trauma, especially if you’ve lived there for 30 or 40 years—and you have seen those years of memories literally go up in smoke.

Children watch and remember how adults respond, especially in times of intense emotion

In recent months, family members have come together in love and support to try to restore the house to its former self. It has been a beautiful demonstration to the children in the family to witness this kind of response, this coming together, to help heal not only the physical damage but also to try to restore some of the emotional connections we’ve had to our home.

It has been an emotional time for all concerned.

When a family works together on a project like this, everyone has opinions and expectations. As everyone attempts to work together, the predictable tensions can arise as a result of the build-up of grief, sadness, frustration and leadership- confusion.

And so it happened this weekend that at the height of all the emotionality some angry, unkind words were exchanged and one person stormed off in tears. And all this was witnessed by some of the children in the family.

I saw the alarm on the children’s faces.

Children, not unlike some of the adults, are frightened when they see adults they love and depend on be at odds with each other. And of course, it is much more alarming if these confrontations become physical.

Thankfully that’s not something this family ever does. The children looked scared and confused, unsure what to do, even where to stand in the room. They, too, were awash in intense feelings, concerned that some essential relational connections were in jeopardy.

Fortunately, within the next hour the kids also saw some reconciliation as the people at the epicenter of the outburst eventually made some apologies to each other and hugged, (albeit not with full enthusiasm) but a gesture that let the children know things were getting better.

Children need acknowledged, too.

In moments like this it is important for children to be attended to, to have their feelings acknowledged and to be reassured.

It’s ideal when an adult not directly in the fray can offer some much-needed messages of understanding and reassurance as well as some practical suggestions. “It can be scary when grown-ups fight,” I whispered to one of the children who looked alarmed and uncertain about what was happening. “It’s a lot like when you get angry. Even adults can say mean things to each other that they really don’t mean. When they calm down, they apologize and their family forgives them. It still is scary to see. Just know that no matter what, they still love each other.”

It can also help to give children some direction as to what they can do. “It looks like your uncle is going to go back to painting the windowsills. Why don’t you check with him to see if he needs some help?”

Everyday life in families is often filled with complex and sometimes intense emotions.

Being mindful of the impact emotional confrontations or outbursts can have on children is important, even when those outbursts are between adults. Normalizing expressions of intense emotions and modeling processes of healthy reconciliation are valuable gifts for children to see.

Giving them opportunities to have their feelings acknowledged as well as specific suggestions of what they can do can help reduce some of the stress can give children practice for managing and responding when emotions run high in their family.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Can you remember a time as a child when emotions ran high in your family? How did it make you feel? To what extent were your feelings acknowledged? Did you have someone safe to turn to who could help you better understand what was going on and to reassure you that things would be okay?
  2. How aware are you that children who witness arguments or tense times between adults can be experiencing feelings of fear, terror, abandonment?
  3. Can you make a commitment to be in touch with how your children might feel at times of intense emotionality and to make sure their needs are attended to?

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