When parents feel upset or about to cry, they may be tempted to suppress these emotions or hide their tears from their children. It’s natural to want to shield kids from the unpleasant parts of life, but there are actually benefits to crying in front of your children.
Last year, Australian blogger Constance Hall wrote a viral Facebook post about letting her children see her cry. “[O]n the weekend I watched a terribly sad documentary with my children and as tears were welling up in mine and my daughters eyes my son put his arms around us both, patting and rubbing our backs,” she wrote.
“I realised that my kids are completely ok with human emotion, not traumatised from seeing their mum cry, they care and understand that this is life,” she added. “There is such comfort for a child knowing that their rock can break down, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t secure. And if we can’t be their for each other why are we here at all?”
HuffPost spoke to a couple of experts about why it can be healthy for kids to see their parents cry sometimes and the best ways to handle these situations when they arise.
“If a child sees a parent or caregiver cry in response to a certain event or situation, it can be beneficial because this allows kids to see that it’s OK to express your feelings,” board-certified licensed professional counselor Tammy Lewis Wilborn told HuffPost.
Normalizing feelings is an important part of raising emotionally intelligent children. If a parent is crying in response to a situation that also upsets their children (like the death of a grandparent or other family member), letting them witness this grief can help the kids realize they aren’t alone in their sadness.
“Because children don’t have tons of lived experience, a lot of times when they’re having different thoughts or feelings, it makes them ask, ‘Is this normal? Is something wrong with me? Why am I so sad and why has this affected me in this way?’” Wilborn noted. Experiencing a sense of collective grief with their parents communicates to children that their sadness is appropriate and helps them learn to cope better.
She added that when children see their parents cry, it can humanize them in their eyes and help kids realize adults are affected by sad things, which is perfectly all right.
Assure Them You’re Going To Be OK
“Children will often be confused and afraid if they see their parents really upset. Afterwards, it is important to explain to the best of your ability, given your child’s age, that you had an emotional moment, but that you are OK, and that you’re going to continue to be OK,” child psychologist Jillian Roberts told HuffPost.
Parents should give their children enough information to help them understand there’s no reason to be scared or confused and that they can talk about things that are uncomfortable.
“When we talk about our own emotional experiences and how we have learned to regulate them with our children, we are both teaching them a life skill and giving them permission to talk about their own experience, which is very healthy,” Roberts explained. “These conversations open up that channel for your parent-child bond to strengthen.”
“Children will often be confused and afraid if they see their parents really upset. Afterwards, it is important to explain to the best of your ability, given your child’s age, that you had an emotional moment, but that you are OK, and that you’re going to continue to be OK.”
In addition to offering the assurance that everything is going to be OK and giving some context to explain the crying, parents should also specifically ask kids about their own feelings.
“You may want to check in with the child and ask, ‘How do you feel seeing Mommy or Daddy cry?’” Wilborn noted. “This gives them another opportunity to talk about their emotions.”
Keep It Age Appropriate
When explaining to kids why you were crying, it’s important to only give information that’s developmentally appropriate and won’t make them worried or afraid of losing their stability and safety.
“Sometimes the nature of the context of why the parent is crying may not be appropriate to explain, or the details might be more than a child can handle,” Wilborn explained. Still, it’s important to offer some sort of context to help kids understand that it’s not their fault.
“I think parents have good intentions about not wanting to have certain conversations with their kids because we don’t want to share that the world can be scary and bad sometimes,” she added. “I think the downside of that is that children fill in the gaps. So when kids don’t have enough information to understand what they’re seeing, it actually ends up doing the same thing the parent is trying to avoid.”
So, while parents don’t have to say ‘the house is about to enter foreclosure,’ they may want to say something like, ‘I know you’ve seen Daddy cry a lot. I’m just having a tough time, but it’s going to be OK.’”
Don’t Limit Emotional Talk To Girls
“Humans need to be given permission to experience and honor their emotional experiences,” said Roberts, noting that many different families and cultures communicate messages of shame around expressing emotions. This kind of negative messaging particularly affects young men.
“This is very damaging because it communicates to them that the only emotion they are allowed to experience and show is anger,” she explained. “We need to encourage parents of young boys to pay particular attention to the emotional experiences of their boys, and that young boys know it is OK for them to experience and discuss the full range of emotions we have as human beings.”
Avoid Doing It Too Often
While it can be healthy for kids to see their parents cry sometimes, it’s possible to take it to an unhealthy extent. If kids see their caregivers crying too frequently or excessively, it may send the message that something is seriously wrong.
“You may want to check in with the child and ask, ‘How do you feel seeing Mommy or Daddy cry?’ This gives them another opportunity to talk about their emotions.”
“Children may feel guilt when they see their parents crying because they want to do something about it, but they don’t know what to do because they’re kids,” Wilborn noted. “They may feel helpless, wondering, ‘What can I do? How do I make this stop?’ And then there’s fear. ‘What does this mean? What’s going to happen to my parents? What’s going to happen to me?’”
Be Mindful Of Intensity
Roberts believes the intensity ― more than the frequency ― of a parent’s emotional experience should be a way to gauge whether it’s a good idea to let their child see them crying.
“If you tear up at sad commercials daily, this is perfectly OK and normal. This shows your children your authenticity, and you are typically in control of your emotions in these circumstances,” she explained. “If you are hyperventilating or displaying other signs of an extreme emotional response in which you would typically excuse yourself from the public view, you should excuse yourself from your children. Extreme, out-of-control emotional responses like these can feel scary for children.”
Of course, it’s not always possible to shield children from these kinds of intense, uncontrollable emotions, especially when tragedy strikes unexpectedly. Still, Roberts recommends that adults not allow their kids to be present for such moments.
“Try to do everything you can to avoid these situations,” she said.