We talk a lot in sessions about what kids hear and witness when there is stress going on inside a family.
Did they hear it or see it? Do they know?
If a parent cries or parents argue, on some level, kids are going to know. They might directly see or hear. Or they simply might feel that something is going on. Emotional currents run through a family and through households. There is no hiding that.
Also, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come out of my office and bumped into a kid listening at the door of one of the other therapists that work in our office suite. Kids are nosy!
You have to remember that picking up on these things, to some degree consciously or unconsciously, is partly a survival mechanism. Kids rely on their parent(s) to get needs met and they need to know what is going on in the family system so they can estimate how or when those needs can be met. This “thought process” about getting needs met can be largely unconscious. That information is required nonetheless.
So, I always say, it is safe to assume that they know.
To what degree? It really depends on the child or teen, their age, their level of emotional awareness, sensitivity and the family dynamics.
Should you acknowledge what happened or is happening with your kid?
As with most things, it depends. However, I would say that it is likely that some acknowledgement of what is happening will be helpful.
Here are 5 tips for how to acknowledge a stressful time or moment with your children or teens:
ONE: Acknowledgement is a way that supports your kids being able to healthfully make sense of what is happening.
Most of the time, you want to acknowledge that there is some kind of stress or there was a tough moment because they are going to find a way to make sense of it whether you share with them or not. Consider that most kids/teens (and some people in general) will tend to explain things to themselves putting themselves at the center of the story. This way, there is a sense of control.
If parents are fighting over parenting, for example, a child might decide they are the problem and if they are more well behaved or easy, the fighting will stop. Or, if they need less, their parents won’t be so stressed about money. They want to fix it. Just like we all want to solve problems and stop pain.
So, if you don’t acknowledge what is happening and provide some kind of explanation, you risk a young mind trying to make sense of bigger scale problems without support.
TWO: Provide a brief, developmentally appropriate explanation.
So, if parents are fighting over screen time, you might say to your young child: “we are having some trouble agreeing about how much screen time is healthy. So, we are going to try and find a way to agree, even though we have not found it yet.”
Keep it short and sweet.
THREE: Your feelings as a parent are OK for your child to see.
Yes, they need to see that adults have feelings too. And that adults also have to figure out how to get along and grow through challenges.
If you try to keep everything away from your child, you are not allowing them the opportunity to see how a healthy adult or healthy couple works through challenges.
The key is not flooding them with your feelings.
Let’s say you are grieving. It is OK for your child to see you cry or need time for yourself. You can say “I’m feeling sad about ____ and I need to cry a little” or “I need to take some space for my feelings right now. I’m OK and this is just a wave that needs to pass through”.
With any challenge, you can say “I know that this is a challenge and challenges are here to help me learn and grow. I’m figuring out how to do that right now and it’s a little messy!”
Talk to them how you would want them to talk to themselves, you or others through a challenge. Kids pick up these things fast.
They are going to handle things in they way you show them to handle things. Whether you are intentional about it or not.
FOUR: Reassurance is key.
No matter what you say, make sure you add that you are OK, they are OK or things will be OK. You want them to understand that they are safe and do not need to worry, that you are handling it.
Even if you don’t know how you are going to handle it yet! You are an adult and you will figure it out. If it is too big to do on your own, you know you can get support to figure it out. One of the ways you can do that is by finding a therapist who can guide you through.
FIVE: No response is needed.
I would expect that you will get a minimizing or distracted response from most kids. Their response is not the important part.
They have ears that hear.
Your acknowledgement is the important part so that can do what they need to do with that information internally.
Consider how you think of things that happened in your own childhood. It didn’t feel important until you saw the impact later. Just like a sunburn. You really don’t know how bad it’s going to be until later. That’s why they minimize it. They haven’t gotten to the sunburn part yet. You have.
Here are some reasons they might not respond to what you say:
- they worry about upsetting you
- they think they are in trouble (see tip #1)
- they don’t realize the importance of it in this moment
- they are worried it is going to turn into a big conversation and they want to get back to their game
- they are worried they will be overwhelmed with their own feelings
If they do respond or have questions, great!
Did your parents acknowledge things that happened in your home? If they did or didn’t, what was that like?