Talk to Your Kids About Stress, Especially Right Now

Unlike toilet paper, there’s been no shortage of stress in 2020. And since many households continue to play triple duty as office and school, chances are, if you have kids, they’ve seen you stressed. The next time this happens, don’t try to hide it. 

Based on a recent study, the thinking that parents—particularly of young children—should hide any negative emotions from their kids is well-intentioned but inaccurate. Not only is it good to share your feelings with your children, most of the time, they can pick up on your mood. 

We talked with experts to learn how this happens, the benefits of talking to your kids about your stress, and the best ways to do so.  

Kids Know Stress When They Sense It

Even if you think you’re concealing your stress, your children are probably noticing it and acting based off of their intuition. In a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, researchers found that when moms tried to suppress their stress, their children actually showed more signs of stress. This effect didn’t happen when dads hid their distress or when parents acted normally and didn’t try to conceal their emotions.

“We think perhaps dads were working harder to have these conversations that they don’t typically have with their kids and also working hard to be tuned into how their kids are feeling,” lead study author Sara Waters, PhD, explains of the parental difference. “This helped them become sensitive to their child’s stress in their body, and that then translated to stress in the dads’ bodies.”

It may also be that, in general, men are more likely to suppress emotions as a go-to strategy to deal with feelings, adds Waters, an assistant professor of human development in Washington State University’s Department of Human Development. It could also be that kids are generally used to their mom being more expressive, including in situations with no stress involved. So, “when kids come into a space with their mom and mom isn’t showing any emotion, that may be weird, so kids pay particular attention to mom. That may be less true with dads.”

Why You Shouldn’t Hide Your Stress

As the study suggests, it’s best to let your kids know that mommy and daddy aren’t always happy. Here’s why.

It helps de-stigmatize negative feelings. “While we don’t want to yell and scream in front of our kids, they are very tuned into how we are actually feeling,” Waters says. If we hide our feelings, “we’re teaching them that we can’t talk about feelings, that it’s not safe to say, ‘I’m not fine,’” she explains. “When parents can share their emotions with their kids, we are helping them become more emotionally resilient and skillful.”

It can reassure them. Discussing emotions can help kids see it’s not their fault that you’re stressed or acting differently, says Divya K. Chhabra, MD, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist. “Kids will sometimes internalize and think they are the reason parents are stressed. Younger kids especially can developmentally not see their parents outside of their relationship, and not see that there are outside things causing mom or dad’s stress,” she explains.

You set an example. Say you’re working from home and your child is doing online schooling. One day, your boss chides you on a Zoom call, and it has you stressed. Take this as an opportunity. If you have a young child, you can say something like, “I just got out of a really upsetting meeting. It was tiring and stressful. I’m going to take some deep breaths to calm down. Would you like to breathe with me?” This example not only explains how you are feeling but also demonstrates a coping strategy, Waters explains. You’re showing that you can still function when things are difficult.

How to Talk to Your Kids About Stress

There are better ways to discuss your stress with your kids. Follow these expert tips.

Don’t try to use your kid as a therapist. “It’s not your child’s responsibility to make negative feelings go away,” Chhabra says. So rather than make your kid your therapist, find a way to express how you are feeling that’s appropriate for their developmental level. And, as mentioned above, it’s helpful to consider asking younger children to join you in a healthy coping activity.  

Make talking about feelings a regular thing. Maybe you go around the dinner table and say your mood or one positive thing and one negative thing from your day, Chhabra suggests. This helps normalize talking about emotions, rather than feelings being something that’s discussed only when a problem arises—or feelings never being talked about.

Bring it up with them. You can also discuss things that you noticed, such as, “It looked like you were having a hard time staying engaged in class today. Do you want to talk about it?” Waters adds that talking isn’t the only way to express and get feelings out. Children (and adults!) can draw or move their bodies, so you may want to suggest those to your child too

Don’t worry about being perfect. “It’s OK to make a mistake once in a while,” Chhabra says. “Model for your kids that you can make a mistake and recover from it. The most important thing is for kids to know you are trying.

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