Is It OK to Let Kids Know You’re Overwhelmed? What the Experts Say

Is It OK to Let Kids Know You’re Overwhelmed? What the Experts Say

Should moms hide their stress from their kids, or be honest about what they’re going through?

By Jeanne Sager

Feeling overwhelmed? There’s some good news for you: You’re not alone. Moms typically report feeling more stressed out than dads. And in one survey, some 91 percent of mothers said they sometimes feel like they need a break but can’t admit it.

Clearly we’d all be a little better off if we ‘fessed up to each other that we’re feeling alone and drowning, but should we be telling our kids when we’re having a hard time?

It turns out they might already know.

“Kids are really perceptive,” explains psychologist Dr. Christy Hobza, a professor at Argosy University in San Francisco, California. “If you think your child does not know what is going on with you, you are likely wrong.”

This holds true even if your kids haven’t mentioned Mommy crying in the bathroom. “Many kids pick up on the cue that if you don’t want to talk about it, it is not okay to ask about,” Hobza explains.

But just because kids often notice doesn’t mean moms should be laying their troubles out for their kids to shoulder. A number of studies have shown parents’ stress can have serious affects on their kids. And the experts advise against making your kids take on adult issues.

“Children need to receive both a verbal and non-verbal message that things may be rough right now, but we will get through this together because Mom (and Dad) can handle it and lead the way,” explains Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “Children truly look up to their parents as a secure base they can depend on. If you are believed to not be sturdy, your child’s sense of confidence, security, internal self-esteem, and even identity formation may be affected.”

The experts suggest a middle ground between falling to pieces in front of your kids and lying when they ask what’s wrong.

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The first step is in adjusting your language, Dr. Hobza says, and truly speaking to your kids as kids and not as you would to an adult friend or partner. “Tell your kids that you are feeling (angry, embarrassed, sad, anxious), and use your child’s own experiences of feeling upset to help them understand what you are feeling.”

Kids need a lot of reassurances, so make sure you explain that the feelings are temporary -- you won’t feel this way forever -- and that they are not to blame.


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Dr. Walfish encourages moms to practice putting a positive spin on the situation. “For example you might say out loud to your child,, ‘This has been a rough week…I guess you’ve noticed that Mommy forgot to pack you lunch twice! I know it’s been hard on me and it’s been rough on you, and we will get through this together. Next week will be better!’” she says. “The key point here is you, Mommy, must adopt the right attitude and tone of voice. Everything in your body language, facial expression, and vocal affect must communicate to your child that you are on top of things, and you hold faith in your ability to securely handle yourself and protect your child.”

That said, avoid lying to your kids. Just as they’re often perceptive enough to notice you’re stressed, they will pick up on a lie.

“It’s best to offer simple answers and stick to the ‘less is more’ philosophy so you do not raise your child’s anxiety,” Walfish explains.

If you worry that your stress is leaking out, and your kids are beginning to show their own signs of feeling overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to act. Hobza suggests asking questions but not interrogating your kids -- “What’s one great thing about today? What’s one tough thing about today?” Listen, but stay calm when they answer. Seeing you get upset about their stress can only upset them more.

If you feel they need therapy, seek it out … and if your child’s stress is the cause of your own? Get help for yourself!

“You need to have your own support in place to effectively support your child,” Hobza notes. “If this is not possible, look for another adult who can help you help your child.”

Do you let your kids know when you’re feeling overwhelmed?

Jeanne Sager is a freelance writer, photographer and social media junkie. She lives in upstate New York with her husband, daughter, and way too many pets. You can follow her @JeanneSager.

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