Modeling Emotions to Our Kids

emotions1I’m a mama who shares a lot with my kids. I’ve gone overboard at times. I’ve shared too much, not quite grasping that my emotions or mental “meaning-making” machine was just too much for my little ones. But overall, I’ve realized that my kiddos have a lot of emotional intelligence that I want to honor.

Being intentional about sharing our emotions with our kids requires balance, mindfulness, and a lot of awareness of our own internal landscape.

Many of us shield our more intense emotions when we think our kids can’t handle them—or we fear that expressing our emotions might do damage, or frighten them. And while we do need to be cautious about our expression with our kiddos, we can sometimes do more damage in our attempts to protect them.

Parents often shield their children from so much and, subsequently, children don’t build the understanding or skills to manage their own intense emotions. Because emotions—big ones—are natural. They’re going to happen. And it’s our response to them, and our ability to be with them, regulate them, and learn to trust the wisdom of them, that allows us to build a healthy sense of self and ultimately forge healthy relationships with others. For our kids to be able to cultivate these abilities, they need to feel the raw, poignant teaching, modeled to them by their parents, of feeling and regulating the spectrum of all that life brings.

There is research related to human beings, even at early ages, having strong emotions2instincts when it comes to innately knowing when others are being dishonest. Sometimes we don’t cognitively perceive dishonesty but we feel it—our bodies sense when others are hiding something and it does damage in our relationships. When children feel us having an emotion that we attempt to hide, they experience us as incongruent, not aligned, not trustworthy. And then they’re left holding that.

When children are offered the chance, however, to consistently witness the practice of feeling, expressing, and regulating emotions, in a healthy way, by a primary influence—namely, their parents—they learn to integrate learning at a deep, core level. Our little ones need to build understanding not simply through practicing what we tell them, but through witnessing explicit behaviors from adult caregivers. They require embodied learning that occurs through the interdependent “neural wiring” that occurs between parent-child dyads—they need to experience their parents navigating life’s intensity, with developed skill, to feel safe and secure in developing their own ability to navigate the same.

Now, does this mean we should share everything with our kids—all the details of our messy emotional lives? Of course not. There is plenty in our adult world to which our children need not have access. They don’t need to know “the story.” They simply need to understand how we’re managing the story.

Here are 10 tips for being an “Emotional Model” for your children:

  1. Be Honest.  Trust that your kids can feel you feeling, and stay present both with yourself and with them. When they feel your congruence, they will naturally settle in your presence.
  1. Learn about your own emotions. Learn where they come from, how they tend to “show up,” and what you BELIEVE they mean. When you understand the habits of your emotional responses, you will be more equipped to regulate them, and your children will learn through your modeling.
  1. Practice tracking the “underneath” side of emotions—you’re frustrated… what’s underneath that? What’s the “deeper thing at stake?” What’s the more vulnerable version of whatever you’re feeling? Slow your emotional response down and validate the truth of whatever is at the core. That’s where the intelligence of emotion resides and when you share what’s underneath, your children will learn to share their own vulnerable truth.
  1. Share the Felt Sense. When you say, “I’m so angry right now,” also share what that feels like. For example, you might say, “I feel like my chest is really tight and I’m not breathing very well.” When we notice the sensation that corresponds with our emotion, we are actually slowing down our reactive habits just like that! And when kids see you tracking the sensation that informs your feelings, they’ll learn to do the same, and there’s tremendous wisdom in our SENSATION. We often mistake “thoughts” for feelings, but sensation always leads us to our deeper truth.
  1. Check in with your kids when you share “big” emotions with them. How is it for them to experience your intensity? Stay curious and engaged and invite them to do the same. Make it safe for them to honestly share their emotions. And let them share in their own time, and in their own way.
  1. Share not just what you feel, but how you’re regulating what you feel. When our kids see us feeling, and practicing regulating those feelings—because it’s always a practice—they learn that our emotional habits are a constant work in progress. Just like keeping our bodies fit and healthy, it takes consistent, mindful work to keep our emotional responses aligned with who we want to be in the world and in our relationships.
  1. Know why you want to share with your kids—is it for your benefit or theirs? Being honest isn’t always to benefit someone else. Sometimes sharing emotions is about our egos, or it’s related to our inability to manage feelings internally. It’s a difficult edge to know if we’re sharing for us or them. And with our children, it’s incredibly important to check ourselves!
  1. Let kids share their emotions on their own terms. As a therapist mom, I know this one all too well. Having an agenda for how and what our children share is simply going to distance them. We can ask, we can do our best to provide the safety and attunement that our kids need to open up to us, but we need to trust their timing and willingness to do so.
  1. Share the powerful positive feelings too. Let the love fly! If you have big anger and potent sadness that you share, be sure you’re filling their emotional buckets with loads of immense love, unconstrained giggles, open adoration, care, gratefulness, and joy.
  1. When you over-share—do the repair. Whether you’ve shared too much of “the story” with your kids, or you let your emotions get out of control, consistently come back and do the necessary repair with your kids. Take ownership. Let them know where you got off track and how you’re going to practice doing it differently next time. Be gentle with yourself too… our kids need to see us offering ourselves compassion so that they can learn compassion for their own missteps.

I’d love to hear your responses, your thoughts, your FEELINGS! Hopefully, you’ll feel free to share!

For the Love of Your Life!

Angie