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The Importance of Modeling Emotions for your Kids

Dad crying in front of child

I have loved watching the cultural shift to naming, acknowledging, and communicating our emotions. Being labeled the “sensitive kid” in my family, I felt pretty weird and even ashamed when I felt my feelings. While my family taught me many things, how to feel and express emotions was not one of them. My dad died of cancer when I was seven and I had no guide to help me navigate the grief. Taking the cue from the adults around me, I just shoved it down.

Sometimes I look back and wonder how different my childhood would have been if there had been someone to model emotional expression. As a family therapist and oncology social worker, it has been a gift to watch what happens when parents allow themselves to feel in front of their kids. This goes beyond teaching emotions to children – which is an essential beginning – but actually showing children your authentic feelings. This is one of the most powerful gifts you can give your kids.

Earlier this week I met with parents who were looking for advice about how to engage with their son who doesn’t want to talk about his mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis. This family is holding so much, and when I reassured them that it is okay to show their emotions and tell him how they feel, I saw their shoulders relax. They didn't need to hold everything in so tight. They recognized that by opening up to him, it would build safety and trust for him to reciprocate and open up to them.

It’s not just okay to cry in front of your children – it may be necessary. Show them what it looks like to FEEL. How can we expect kids to know what to do with their feelings unless we show them? It would be like asking them to clean up the kitchen, but never teaching them the steps of moving dishes to the sink, rinsing them, placing them in the dishwasher, and wiping down the counters. The kitchen doesn’t just magically clean itself – there is a process of making it happen.

It’s the same for our kids. If they don’t see their most trusted adults cry and talk about it or even get angry and apologize or talk about it, then they won’t learn that behavior and how to respond themselves. Narrating through an emotional response is a great way for kids to hear what is going on inside your mind and body. As they observe your behaviors it helps them to make connections to their own internal process and subsequent responses.

Anger can be an especially scary emotion to feel, display, or even witness. For this reason, adults avoid its expression and many kids are given the message that their anger is bad or inappropriate. But anger is our power! It tells us to fight for something, to solve a problem, or to make something better. So the best thing to do is teach kids how to use anger safely and appropriately. Maybe you get off a difficult phone call and your kids are in the room. You can say, “I am feeling really angry about the conversation I just had and I feel like I am going to explode. I’m going to go into my room for a few minutes and punch my pillow until I feel calm.” If you are in a space to invite your children to be angry with you, you can do that too. Throw wads of toilet paper at the wall. Get on the ground and see who can throw a bigger tantrum. Grab some ice cubes and throw them on the sidewalk, watching them shatter. After you feel the energy of the emotion move through your body, talk about how you are feeling: “My body feels lighter now. I feel like I can think again. Now I am in a place to make a plan about what made me so angry in the first place.”

Here’s another thing–you are going to make mistakes. You will probably have times that you express too much emotion (or not enough) and the beautiful thing is THIS is a modeling opportunity as well! Show your kids how to make it right. “Hey, I wanted to apologize for yelling at you yesterday. I was feeling really scared about an upcoming appointment. I’m sorry. Next time I am feeling scared I will find a better way to handle it.” What’s better than modeling accountability? Making mistakes and making it right? This will help your kids to do the same.

Helping your children to navigate through their feelings will help them in day-to-day life, and especially through the challenges they will face. Whether it is a parent’s cancer diagnosis, a divorce, the death of a pet, a big move or life transition. Kids will weather these moments with greater resilience if they can access their feelings and talk about them with a trusted adult.

Carissa Hodgson, LCSW, OSW-C is the Director of Programs and Community Outreach at Bright Spot Network, a national non-profit organization that supports parents who have cancer and young children. Programs are offered free of charge and are open to parents with any cancer, as well as their partners. Carissa is also the co-chair of the Association of Oncology Social Workers Youth, Families and Cancer Special Interest Group and a long-term instructor at the University of Wisconsin Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work.