It’s Ok To Have Your Kids See You Be Sad
How to make sadness be an okay emotion in your house.
It doesn’t need to be said that the world is — and always has been — a really sad place. From war and bullying to miscarriages, unexpected death of spouses, terminal diagnoses, advocacy that doesn’t seem to move anyone, systems that perpetuate ongoing anger and sadness, and the list goes on and on and on. It can be sadness information overload, coming from the TV or your personal experiences. So what are we, as parents, supposed to do about all of this in the context of raising our kids?
If, like me, you have the privilege to have a healthy — mentally, physically, financially — family, the answer is to live in both sadness and joy. Dual emotions dwelling simultaneously. I believe the answer is to expose our kids to both the very real sad things that are happening, to help them learn how to cope and even grow through and in the sadness, and to cultivate intentional times of play and joy. To champion the message that to be human is to be multifaceted in our emotions.
Sadness cannot, no matter how hard you try, be escaped. Our kids will be sad. Our kids will see sad things. Our kids will also see their parents sad. To avoid stories and information that most likely will leave our child feeling sad, in my opinion, leaves them to live in a make-believe world and misses brilliant opportunities to navigate sadness together. Our kids become adults. Personally, I want my kids to become resilient, responsive, and empathetic adults.
Let sadness be an okay emotion in your house. Experts seem to agree with me on this. Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Debra Kessler, specializes in the area of children’s emotional needs, writing “part of our job as parents is to help (our kids) contend with distress (or negative emotions) so they can learn to take care of themselves.” Kessler adds, “Learning about negative feelings and their meaning helps our children attend to critical information so they can effectively navigate through their lives.”
When I was going through a divorce roughly two years ago, I let my sadness be seen by my kids from time to time. I told them I was sad and that it makes sense I would be sad as a family dream had fallen apart. I cried a little in front of them, too. I reassured them that I would be okay but that sometimes adults get very, very sad and need to cry. My kids watched me work through very big and negative emotions, and they saw me ultimately, be okay.
My then barely 5-year-old daughter also took the news of her dad and I divorcing in a naturally human way: She was sad. She cried. She said she didn’t want “Mommy to move out” and clung to me. Of course I told her she was immensely loved and that she never needed to worry about her dad or myself ever leaving her. I also told her it is a sad thing and that she should know it makes sense she’d be sad. She was also specifically told to ask questions and to express her sadness as much and as often as she needed. Did I like seeing her this sad and being an unintentional cause of such sadness? God, no. I had to have many adult friends reassure me that I wasn’t a monster for the decision I made that had significant consequences on my children. I had to navigate a menu of emotions myself while simultaneously doing so with and for my daughter.
It’s just as important to model sitting in sadness and to not shield children from negative emotion; be there to show them when joy takes over and what a wonderful emotion joy is. Humans are meant to create and to be creative, to experience and express joy. In our home, we set aside time to draw and color together. I love this time so much. My daughter likes to keep what she is making a secret, as she wants to participate in a “grand reveal.” She’s recently lost almost all her front teeth, so the smile she gives me when she tells me it’s time to look at what she made is extra heartstring-pulling-y ) these days. I make sure to take some time to look at her creation and tell her that her work is beautiful and the pride she exudes about her creations makes me feel so happy. Sometimes she responds, “Mommy, are you so happy you’re going to cry?” She’s learning crying can be a symptom of both sadness and joy. That’s interesting to think about.
At the end of the day, what I don’t want is to raise a kid that thinks they have to look for “the bright side” during sad happenings or a kid that lives in oblivion while chasing after constant dopamine hits often dressed as joy. Sadness can cultivate empathy and movement. Joy can cultivate gratitude and energy. At the end of the day, I want my kids to know they are safe and okay to feel the vastness of emotions they certainly will encounter. Like every mom, I want my kids to live in happiness as much as possible. The reality, however, is they — and their generation — will endure sadness in many ways big and small. I want to equip them to experience both with perspective and to know that they will be okay along the way.
Meg Raby is a mom, children's author of the My Brother Otto series, and Autistic residing in Salt Lake City where you can find her playing and working with neurodivergent children as a Speech Language Pathologist and friend, or writing and planning big things in the second booth at her local coffee shop that overlooks the Wasatch Mountains while sipping on her Americano. Meg believes the essence of life is to understand, love and welcome others (aka, to give a damn about humans).