Perhaps the toughest thing when our children cry are the emotions their tears trigger in us: empathic upset and sadness, plus a sense of helplessness that comes from thinking we need to do something while unsure what that would be. If we ourselves feel uncomfortable with those emotions -- upset, sad, helpless -- our kids' tears will be that much harder for us to be around.
For some parents, kids' tears trigger discomfort with vulnerability (crying being an obvious expression of vulnerability). Many men in particular can't tolerate the sight and sound of a crying youngster, regarding it as a sign of weakness and, with tearful sons, effeminacy. Those parents may sharply insist: "There's no reason to cry," "I'll give you something to cry about!" "Big boys/big girls don't cry," "Don't be such a cry baby," etc. In contrast, parents less unsettled by the vulnerability of crying may offer gentle words of comfort yet still wish to stem the flow ("It will be all right," or "It's not worth crying about"). Such parents often pull their tearful child into a physical embrace.
Why do people cry? A prevailing view is that certain positive and negative emotions -- upset, sadness, awe, joy, hurt -- experienced at strong intensities knock us off our emotional equilibrium, crying being the body's natural way of restoring equilibrium. Strong feelings create a build-up of a kind of emotional tension which crying releases, allowing emotional balance to be restored. Some researchers believe that emotional tears (versus tears generated by itchy eyes or chopped onions) release stress hormones or toxins. Emotional tears contain a natural painkiller -- leucine encephalin -- which may explain why we can feel better after "a good cry."[i]
What our sobbing kids need from us is precisely the opposite of what we tend to deliver: they need to feel our uncritical acceptance of crying (and the feelings behind it). So give the crier room -- emotional and physical space -- to experience the tears and the feelings, without doing anything to interfere. Being touched, and especially hugged, interrupts the restorative process that crying seems designed to deliver. Delay the urge to touch -- the hug can come later. Offer caring words of empathy: "I see how sad/upset/frustrated you are..." while staying physically close. Say, "It's good you can cry," and just remain quiet while reminding yourself that tears, allowed to run their course, restore our emotional balance.
Your daughter comes home in tears. She can barely choke out words to describe the mean things some girls said to her on the school bus. You listen to her story and try to comfort her. If you’re really skilled, you’ll offer her attunement (Are You Okay? March 2014).
After a couple months practicing for his first driver’s license, your son fails the behind-the-wheel test at the motor vehicle department. On the way home, you sense his distress as he complains about the unfair examiner and how he deserved to pass. You try to comfort him.
Recent research suggests that there’s something else — something enormously helpful — that you can do that may reduce the intensity and duration of a child’s distress: coach your kids to identify and name the specific emotions they’re feeling during moments of emotional pain.
Studies have found that when people identify and specifically name their emotions, they are “less likely to be overwhelmed in stressful situations.”i That’s because when we use precise labels for our feelings, we understand more about what’s happening to us emotionally, which then can lead to identifying a smart (and healthy) course of action. Clearly labeled emotions become easier to regulate (“I’m sad” rather than “I feel bad,” or “I’m disappointed” rather than “I’m really bummed out”). Once we know the feeling we’re dealing with, we can tailor our response to it rather than just fall back on the customary habits we rely on in order to feel better (especially unhealthy habits like erupting into anger, turning to alcohol, bottling up the pain, bingeing on food, etc.)
People skilled at naming their feelings have been found to drink 40% less alcohol when stressed,ii and are 20% to 50% less likely to retaliate with verbal or physical aggression against someone who has hurt them.iii Impressive evidence exists that teaching school-aged children to expand their understanding and use of precise emotion words improves both their social behavior as well as their academic performance.iv
If we’re going to teach our kids to speak the language of emotions, we’re going to need to speak the language ourselves. It doesn’t require a huge lexicon; angry, sad, hurt, afraid, upset, disappointed, discouraged, guilty, and ashamed are the basics. Incorporate those words into your vocabulary, and when your kids are distressed, coach them to do the same.
i Kashdan, T.B., L.F. Barrett, P.E., McKnight. “Unpacking emotion differentiation: transforming unpleasant experience by perceiving emotion differentiation.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, February 2015 vol. 24 no. 1, pp.10-16. doi: 10.1177/0963721414550708.
ii Kashdan, T. B., P. Ferssizidis, R.L. Collins, & M. Muraven. “Emotion differentiation as resilience against excessive alcohol use: An ecological momentary assessment in underage social drinkers.” Psychological Science, 21, 2010. 1341–1347.
iii Pond, R. S., T.B. Kashdan, C.N. Dewall, A.A. Savostyanova, N.M. Lambert, & F.D. Fincham. “Emotion differentiation buffers aggressive behavior in angered people: A daily diary analysis.” Emotion, 12, 2012. 326–337.
iv Brackett, M. A., S.E. Rivers, M.R. Reyes, & P. Salovey. “Enhancing academic performance and social and emotional competence with the RULER feeling words curriculum.” Learning and Individual Differences, 22, 2012, 218–224.
Imagine that for twenty minutes, your 4-year-old has been fussing at the playground, crying and complaining and kicking sand at other children. Feeling growing irritation, you inch toward delivering a serious scolding. But you sense the watchful eyes of parents nearby, and so you suppress your feelings and handle the moment with faked aplomb.
Checking in on your daughter, who has been playing quietly in her room, you discover that her dresser drawers have been overturned and clothes are heaped everywhere. Your temperature races to a boil but before you react, you remember reading about never disciplining children from a place of anger. So you suppress your feelings and handle the moment with forced calm and equanimity.
Are we and our children better off when we suppress our negative emotions, or when we’re honest and transparent with our feelings?
Researchers at the University of Toronto studied this very question with 162 parentsi. They found that when parents suppressed their negative emotions — squelching feelings like upset, anger, and sadness — they reported a reduced sense of their own emotional well-being, poorer quality of relationship with their children, and less effective responsiveness to their kids’ needs. In other words, both parents and children seemed to pay a price when parents suppressed negative feelings. Why might this be?
Hiding our negative emotions decreases our sense of authenticity, defined as operating according to our core sense of who we are.ii Authenticity seems to be a critical component of personal well being, whether in our role as parents or any of our important relationships. By regularly suppressing negative feelings when we interact with our kids, we seem to lay the foundation for a less satisfying parenting experience.
In addition, suppressing negative emotion requires effort, which researchers suspect may deplete our emotional and energy resources. Depleted in this way, we may be compromised in our ability to effectively meet our children’s needs.
Better to strive for a modulated middle ground — without excessive volume or drama, without allowing our anger to burst forth suddenly and without restraint — so that we can say “I’m frustrated” or “I’m angry” or “I’m upset with you right now.” Our children seem better off — and so are we — when we bring emotional honesty to the challenging task of guiding our kids along a smart and healthy path.
i Le, Bonnie M. & Impett, E. “The costs of suppressing negative emotions and amplifying positive emotions during parental caregiving.” Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. March 2016 (42,3) 323336.
ii English, T., & John, O. P. “Understanding the social effects of emotion regulation: The mediating role of authenticity for individual differences in suppression. Emotion, 2013,13, 314-329. doi:10.1037/a0029847
Tell your college-age sons and daughters that more than 1,800 college students die from alcohol-related accidents each year, and nearly 600,000 are injured while drunk.i Tell them that over half a million are assaulted by another student under the influence, and 97,000 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.ii
“College drinking is sometimes still viewed as a harmless rite of passage,” says one researcher in the field of campus behavior. “That’s particularly dangerous given that research shows this age group is much more impulsive even when alcohol’s not involved.”iii Most at risk are incoming freshmen, student athletes, and those involved in fraternities and sororities.
The good news is that drinking behavior can be influenced by parents. In one study, those graduating high school seniors and college freshmen who believed that their parents knew and cared about their drinking drank less — and less often — than those who thought their parents didn’t know or care about their alcohol use.iv Another study found that parental monitoring, parental attitudes toward drinking, and parent-child communication all impacted students’ alcohol consumption.v Students whose parents raised the topic of alcohol throughout the college years — not just prior to freshman year — drank significantly less than classmates whose parents never raised the subject.vi
Parents who want to be particularly proactive might also:
- Pose questions that get youngsters thinking (while you listen rather than preach): How can you stay safe at a party with alcohol flowing? What will you do if a drunk friend gets behind the wheel and expects you to climb aboard? How will you decide how much alcohol is enough? How will you handle a roommate who drinks to excess? Do you know your school’s rules and consequences for alcohol violations?
- Let them know that the norm on campuses is moderate — not abusive — drinking, so that they don’t imagine the only way to fit in is by getting drunk.
- Acknowledge the force of peer pressure, and how simply holding a glass in their hand — whether it contains tonic or soda or sparkling water with a slice of lime — might mollify classmates who want everyone to get plastered along with them.
- Suggest that adding ice to drinks will dilute alcohol’s potency and reduce the likelihood of intoxication.
- Designate a responsible driver in advance if there’s going to be a need for transportation.
With 16 the average age teens start drinking, why wait until the approach of college to begin these conversations?
i Hingson, Ralph W., et al. “Magnitude of and trends in alcohol-related mortality and morbidity among U.S. college students ages 18-24, 1998-2005. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 2009 Jul; (16): 12–20.
iii Dr. James Murphy, quoted in Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, October 2013.
iv Wetherill, R. & Fromme, K. “The effects of perceived awareness and caring, family motives and social motives on alcohol use by high school and first semester college students.” Psychology of Addictive Behaviors>/em>, 2007, 21, 147-154.
v Turrisi, Robert et al. (2013). “Examining the role of parents in college student alcohol etiology and prevention.” In: Interventions for addiction: Comprehensive addictive behaviors and disorders. Elsevier Inc., San Diego: Academic Press, pp. 865-873.
vi Doumas, Diana M., et al. “A randomized trial evaluating a parent based intervention to reduce college drinking.” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, July 2013, 45:1, 31–37.
Whether parents are living together or not, in a two-parent family it’s likely that one (or both) has spoken critically of the other — in the presence of the children. You can be so stubborn! a frustrated mother says to father as the children sit nearby. You don’t listen when I talk to you, father blurts into the cellphone while the kids listen from the back seat. Often the co-parent isn’t even around when the children hear Dad sigh, Your mother can be so insensitive. It takes superhuman self-control to avoid moments like these entirely over the course of the child-rearing years.
High conflict couples may try to keep denigrating comments out of the kids’ earshot, but angry words can travel through walls and doors before the children have fallen off to sleep at night. Newly divorced couples, raw with hurt and anger, may have the hardest time of all containing their emotion in the presence of the kids.
Research published in 2014i found that parental denigration occurs infrequently, more often in divorced than intact families, is almost always practiced by both parents, and — here’s the surprising finding — is associated with a less close parent–child relationship between the child and the denigrator parent. Yes, contrary to the common assumption that unkind words will turn children against the target parent, there seems to be a boomerang effect at play. The denigrating parent more often damages his or her own relationship with the kids; unkind words seem to backfire.
The boomerang effect suggests that children don’t want to hear negative attributions about either of their parents. Whomever bad-mouths mom or dad (and that includes mom or dad) loses points with the youngsters.
These results challenge the long-held view that negative talk by one parent promotes “parental alienation” toward the other. Instead, the researchers hypothesized that when alienation occurs, it’s likely the result of some troubling behavior that the children have repeatedly witnessed — excessive substance use, uncontrolled mental illness, unreasonable child management — rather than denigrating comments from the other parent.
Let it be a warning to all moms and dads: speaking unkindly about your co-parent when the kids are around might come back to bite you.
i Rowen, Jenna and Robert Emery. “Examining parental denigration behaviors of co-parents as reported by young adults and their association with parent–child closeness.” Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol 3(3), Sep 2014, 165-177.http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cfp0000026.
“You’re going to remember your first sexual experience for the rest of your life,” a wise mother said to her teenage daughter, “so think carefully before you make a decision that can end up haunting you forever.”
Talking about sex with our children can be challenging for any parent. What to say? When to say it? Should we share personal experience? Should we assume a posture of neutrality, imparting information only, or should we include personal values, feelings and moral perspectives?
Studies have found that nearly half of all high school students have had sex, and nearly one-third are sexually active. Every year, over half a million pregnancies occur among adolescents, and nearly half of all sexually transmitted diseases occur among 15 to 24 year-olds. While we might wish it were otherwise, some form of sex (including sexting) has been or will soon be a part of many teen and pre-teen lives.
Research has found that when adolescents talk with their parents about sexual behavior and contraceptive use — especially when they talk to mothers — they tend to engage in safer sex, leading to lower rates of teen pregnancy and a lower incidence of sexually transmitted disease.i These benefits were particularly pronounced among girls.
So talk to your teen about sex. Although the topic may be part of health education at school, there’s typically more your youngster needs to know, to understand, and to discuss. You can fill the gap. Here’s what to keep in mind:
- Sex isn’t a one-time talk to be held at the “perfect moment.” Take advantage of unexpected moments when sexual content on TV, film or media offer a convenient conversation starter.
- Briefer chats help keep the kids’ interest, focused on one important idea at a time — easier for them to remember.
- If you’re uncomfortable with certain topics, say so — and keep talking. When you’re emotionally honest, your kids will more likely be honest with you — asking their thorniest questions, sharing their biggest concerns.
- Don’t preach or use scare tactics. You want them to come back for more, without fear of scoldings, sermons, or intimidation.
- Do a lot of listening. Rely on “tell me more” to draw them out.
- Go beyond information. Incorporate values and feelings, the role of respect between sexual partners, and the importance of mutual consent.
Don’t squander the opportunity to be your kids’ most influential sex educators.
For more on how to talk to your kids about sex, visit: http://www.pamf.org/parenting-teens/sexuality/talking-about-sex/sex-talk.html.
”How was school today?”
“Did you do anything interesting?”
“How did that test go that you were studying for last night?”
Sound familiar? You’re interested in your child’s experience, but you’re shut out. All you get are one-word responses and then there’s silence, or the conversation moves on to other things.
It’s a culture of engagement many parents try to foster, hoping to hear about a youngster’s school day or their time spent with friends or just their latest daydreams. It’s contact we seek, a sense of connection — and we rely on questions as a way of drawing them out. But for them, we’ve morphed at those moments into an annoying Questioner-in-Chief, putting them on some witness stand where they feel vulnerable and over-exposed. That’s when they shut down or turn away.
We forget that the behaviors intrinsic to a culture of connection can be modeled by us. We can take the initiative and share with our children — no matter what their age — tales from our own life. Tales of conflict are particularly likely to engage them — our own disagreements with friends or family or co-workers. Conflict gets attention. It’s what the Greek dramatists knew 2,000 years ago, and it remains true today. Our children live their lives regularly experiencing conflict, whether with siblings or friends or often with us. And your stories will carry a particular punch when you include your emotions: I felt upset, I felt angry, I felt frightened. Emotions are universal; the kids will relate. You might even embellish your narrative a bit if you think it will make your story that much more engaging. Tailor your stories to their level of understanding and edit out what you think might be for grown-up ears only, including the names of people they may know.
By sharing interesting moments from our day, we set a tone that makes it easier for our kids to do the same. If we’re willing to be vulnerable by emotionally self-disclosing with them, they’re more likely to reciprocate with us. But when they do open up, we must listen neutrally and accept what we hear without judgment or criticism. That’s not always easy, especially when they reveal their uncomfortable emotions. Our knee-jerk inclination to protect and solve and admonish and correct will remind them that we’re not easy to talk to — why even bother? Then we’re back to square one, floundering ineffectively as Questioner-in-Chief. (See The 5:1 Ratio, October 2011).