Friday, August 1, 2014

How Much is Too Much to Share?

How Much Is Too Much to Share - Parentunplugged - Stacy Snyder
I think of my kids as little.  They are little from some perspectives and they are very grown up from others.  At 5 and 10, I still try to shield them from unnecessary details regarding violent crimes and horrific accidents and disasters, but I make sure they know that they exist and to be safe and always treat life as if it might be your last day on earth as you know it.  I try to keep daily worries about money and finances under wrap, but I make sure they’re aware of the value of a dollar by sharing costs of products and services with them and letting them earn their own money to spend as they choose.   Given their ages, these seem like no-brainers, at least for my family.

Yet other topics are not quite as cut and dry.  Sex, drugs, sickness, and death can be prickly, as it’s often hard to determine where to draw the line as to how much info is too much to share on each topic.  While my kids are not blind to any of them, we tend mostly to address more detail when one of the issues is presented as a live example in our lives or when warning or advanced knowledge is required.  But what about emotions….do you share the way you feel about situations with your kids?

I used to wear a poker face in front of my kids whenever I was dealing with anything negative, uncomfortable, or difficult, in order to shield them from unpleasant situations.  But then I noticed when my kids, especially my younger one, would run into unpleasant situations outside of “my watch,” they didn’t seem to handle the emotion involved in such very well.  They weren’t comfortable witnessing sadness, frustration, fear, or anger, and it would manifest itself as nightmares and anxieties.  And at home when unexpected scenarios would pop up, i.e physical injuries of family members, parental squabbling, etc., the girls, although naturally empathetic by nature, were scared of the raw emotions that surfaced from their parents.

One day I overheard my older daughter tell one of her friends, “My mom NEVER shows any emotion or cries.”  That’s not true, I started to interject, but as I thought back through some of the loss and sadness I’d encountered over the last decade, I realized most of it was early in my eldest daughter’s life, and while I cried and showed lots of emotion at the time, she would have been too young to remember it.  And while my kids are quite familiar with me getting “fired up” about situations that annoy me and cost me nothing to share or laughing so hard that I can barely stand up, the last five years have been chalked full of my fiancĂ© and I keeping our voices down so the kids don’t hear us fight, and putting on a happy face in front of them when all we really want to do is lay in bed and cry, as we try to cover up the negative feelings of the heart. 

After being granted legal privilege to marry to my partner of almost fifteen years and the otha’ motha’ of my kids, she and I embarked on a year-long planning of our upcoming wedding, which has surprisingly brought out many of the same insecurities, doubts, and anxieties in us as are expected of young brides who are merging their single lives with their single fiance’s for the first time.  For me, fear of commitment has popped up, and for Katie, yearning for validation, among other things.  In working through some of the feelings that are surfacing against our will, it has become nearly impossible to hide our sentiments from the kids.  Disappointment, resentment, worry….you name it, we’ve had it, in addition to the excitement, hope, and glee.  All of those feeling can bring on tears.

After one of my first emotional gags, I remember the look of fear and concern on my 5-year-old’s face when she saw me crying.  She was afraid to even come close to me because she didn’t know how to respond to my tears.  I pulled her close and wrapped her up in my arms, letting her feel the same warmth in my body that she does when I’m happy or content.  I told her I was sad and I couldn’t stop crying and that it was okay.  She comforted me and hugged me tight.  It helped me feel less anxious by sharing my physical reaction to sadness with her and it helped her take the first step in processing unexpected emotions. 

That first unveiling of emotion led way to subsequent moments of sharing my moods with both my kids and inviting them to know all of me, not just the presentable portion of me.  Since then, I’ve made an active decision to share all of my heart with my girls, not just the shiny pretty parts.  While I benefit immensely by lightening my load and getting a boost of love from my girls, my kids, especially my 10-year-old, has learned through me sharing my feelings that it’s okay to share hers too without the world going up in smoke.  She now opens up to me regularly, whereas before it was like pulling teeth trying to get her to concede her woes. 

I still struggle over how much is too much to share about why I feel the emotions I do, and I usually err on the side of less detail, but instead focus on acknowledging that the emotion does in fact exist and affects us all.  I let my kids ramble on to their hearts’ content when they confide in their thoughts, and overall we’re woven much tighter today than we were just six months ago.  I think this change toward sharing instead of shielding raw emotion from my kids, has positively affected our entire family, and I’m guessing it has altered the emotional growth path of my kids and for me.  I can’t even begin to ponder the “what ifs” of never opening up to my kids.  I’m so grateful all these insecurities came up and forced me into a place where I had no other choice but to wear it all out in the open. 

I’m not sure if there is a one-size-fits all answer to how much is too much when it comes to sharing, as every situation, individual, and family is different, but I can say with conviction that the decision to share feelings at all with our kids is extremely important.