Showing your vulnerable side – should you cry in front of your children?

This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately, but I’ve yet to come up with an answer, or formulate an argument, so I am writing here as a way of exploring the issue and how I feel about. So I apologise in advance if the post gets a little fragmented – it’s me thinking out loud.

So my question really is how much emotional vulnerability is it ok to show in front of your children? As a single parent, a mother from the age of 17, I have become an expert at suppressing my emotions to always appear positive and in control. This comes I think not only from taking on responsibilities so young, but also from my relationship with my family.

I’m sure my mother will forgive me for saying that being a parent coincided with a difficult period in her life, a tearful period, in which emotional vulnerability featured highly. Because of this, I think I learnt to be sensitive about how I behaved and the things I said, not wanting to upset anyone or make anyone cry. I have taken this forward into my adult life and am still very anti-confrontation. If I can act in a way to minimise upsetting someone else then I will.

This of course comes at a price. I have always known this on a personal level – people see me as hugely positive and confident, difficult to upset, detached even. One long term boyfriend actually told me I was cold hearted. The danger with this is that people don’t worry about upsetting you. They think the positive exterior means I don’t worry about things, that I am a tough cookie. But this is not true. I am just an expert in the brave face, practised at making the best of things and seeming to shrug off criticism or rejection.

I have always known this sometimes hard exterior has an effect on my relationships with men, but recently I have begun to wonder how it affects my relationships with my children. Bee told me recently that I am annoyingly cheery, that she sees me cry so rarely that it scares her when I do. So how does this make her feel about me and, more importantly, about herself? Does she think I don’t care? Or will she think that letting down your guard, being prepared to open yourself up emotionally, and admitting to feeling sad sometimes are weaknesses?

I’m on my own as a parent. I don’t have anyone to offload negative feelings to on a day to day basis, and I am loathe to become the teary parent that my children are constantly afraid of upsetting. I am also very aware that it would be all too easy as a single mum to use an older child as an emotional crutch, and I really don’t want my children to feel in anyway responsible for me. But then maybe I should accept that family members do have a responsibility to look out for each other. This is hard for me though. My tough teenage mum shell doesn’t want to rely on anyone for anything. Dependence feels like a weakness. I need to be able to look after myself.

I am starting to wonder though if showing a bit more vulnerability sometimes and asking for help more often might actually endear me to people more. I’m sure it must be hard for friends and partners to feel useful and needed if I appear so capable. And maybe it would show Bee that actually it is quite normal to often feel lonely, bored, fed up and sad. We are all human after all, but perhaps I don’t show it as much as I could.

I’d be really interested to know what other people think about this. Do you cry in front of your children or do you believe in putting on a happy face at all times? Have the relationships in your childhood shaped the way you parent? How as a parent can you show vulnerability at the same time as being the person who provides security? Answers on a postcard please…

Photo credit: Cesar S

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39 Comments

  1. 2 March, 2010 / 3:11 pm

    It is hard. When my marraige broke down B was 5 and she saw me cry a lot, we went and lived with my parents for 2 months till I could sort out a house, and in that time I regressed to be the child, B was more like an annoying little sister I ha to do things for. She sawme at my weakest and it matured her, looking back I wish I’d hidden it more, but the only time we were apart was when she was at school and we shared a bedroom. I was also 5 months pregnant so she saw me cry lots over the following 4 months. And then there were the early days with H where again I cried alot as reality hit in. Now I rarely cry but not because I conciously try not to in front of her. I am unable to stop myself if I feel like crying and quite often I will cry at films, more oten then not she cries to. But thats me, I have always cried lots, friends used to take bets on how long I would last on a night out without getting emotional! I think it’s healty for kids to see emotion, crying is the natural opposite to laughing. But just as constant laughing would be unnerving, crying too much can’t be right for the kids either. I think it’s easier said than done, but yeah kids should be able to see that adults, in paricular those close to them, go through the same emotions they do. I think I hit the extreme and God forbid me to get that low again I would try my damdest to hide it from the kids – maybe see a few tears but not so many. 2 years on B is only just feeling ok to talk about Daddy with me so I know it wasn’t right for her. I just hope she was young enough for me to rectify things!!

    • 2 March, 2010 / 3:29 pm

      It must have been so hard though under those circumstances to do anything BUT cry in front of you daughter. When my relationship with Bee’s Dad ended she was two and we lived with my mum for a while – sharing a matress on the floor and then bunk beds in a box room. you just can’t hide emotions from a child when you are living so close to them all the time. I’m sure your daughter will be ok – it is really tricky for them after a split isn’t it to know how to act?

  2. 2 March, 2010 / 3:13 pm

    Well I hardly ever put on a happy face. I am frequently moody or grumpy and just let it all hang out and I suppose the kids know when to avoid me – ie in the morning before I’ve had coffee especially. Sure I have cried in front of my kids.

    Good that you don’t want to “use an older child as an emotional crutch” my mum was a single mum and did that with me and it really messed me up. I think you should be more genuine with your emotions tho, show your vulnerability to your kids and towards close friends and you’ll feel less isolated.

    • 2 March, 2010 / 3:30 pm

      I’m sure you’re right. I guess part of me worries that if I start to let the cracks show the dam will burst and everything will spill out! That woudn’t be a good look!

  3. 2 March, 2010 / 3:18 pm

    I don’t cry in front of Amy but that’s because she find emotions difficult to understand (she’s autistic). I act sad and upset sometimes, especially if she’s done something to annoy me, but in the few times I have been close to tears she has burst into tears too!!

    CJ xx

    • 2 March, 2010 / 3:32 pm

      Gosh, it must be extra hard for you – I guess Amy must find changes in your emotions quite upsetting and difficult to deal with? Do you think this makes it easier or more difficult for you to know what to do? I suppose you at least know from the start how she is going to react if you are upset.

  4. 21stcenturymum
    2 March, 2010 / 3:18 pm

    Good question. Yes, I do think it’s to do with childhood relationships. I don’t remember my mother ever crying when I was young, despite her being an emotional person. I’m sure she must have done as she also went through a really tough time when I was very young. I don’t remember actually seeing her cry until I was well into my teens at least. I felt very uncomfortable (and still do) when she cries. I’m not really sure why, but I think it has something to do with not being used to it.

    For this reason, I don’t believe in putting on a happy face all the time, as it’s not real – although if I did, I don’t think I could anyway – I cried when my daughter did carol singing at her nursery for goodness sake (I did used to be a lot tougher before I had my 2 year old!). I think it’s okay for them to see you cry occasionally, then they get to see the real you.

    However, I don’t think it’s good to cry in front of your child very often. It can’t be good for them to see their mother, who is ultimately meant to be there for them and support them and protect them, being continuously upset.

    http://www.21stcenturymummy.com

    • 2 March, 2010 / 3:33 pm

      My mum says the same about her mother – she never cried and always was in control – and as a result my mum felt very anxious about her own feelings and thought she must be the only one who ever cried. It’s such a difficult balance isn’t it?

  5. 2 March, 2010 / 3:27 pm

    Displays of emotion, we reckon, are necessary for teaching children that we are human beings with feelings, and not robots – and that everyone’s an individual with individual responses. Showing emotion is really healthy although being constantly, emotionally needy is not. And there is a big difference. You sound like a hugely mature, emotionally well equipped, loving mum and I’m sure there is loads that you can teach your children about healthy displays of emotion.

    We’ve also started to teach the five year old the difference between different types of laughing and crying. Because let’s face it, it’s not OK to laugh at someone in a cruel way, or because they’ve made a mistake. And it’s a fantastic release of emotion to cry at a soppy film. or an advert. Or The Archers Omnibus. or at most things once you become a mum,. Somehow the floodgates seem to open a bit wider, perhaps because we see the vulnerability of the world that much more.

    • 2 March, 2010 / 7:32 pm

      I think it’s true that being a parent makes you more aware of the vulnerability of the world, and probably more emotional as a result. For me though, that comes with feeling more of a sense of responsibility as to how you handle and display those emotions – ironic really!

  6. 2 March, 2010 / 3:39 pm

    this is such a hard question, I just don’t know the answer. you want to show them you are human, and that its okay to be sad and cry sometimes, but you don’t want them to get upset or worry about you…

    Don’t know, can i have an easier question please?

    • 2 March, 2010 / 7:33 pm

      Ok. Biscuits or cake?

      Actually, that’s pretty tricky too…

  7. 2 March, 2010 / 4:19 pm

    I try not to cry in front of the boys. But sometimes I have to take a break and they know not to disturb me. That is usually to let frustration work its way out but occasionally for a good howl too. I don’t know what the answer is. But I also think that children should know their parents for people. This doesn’t mean behaving badly in front of children, but they should know that their parents have feelings, can be sad. Seeing how their parents deal with it (and come through it) could give them the tools to deal with the rubbish that life will throw at them one day. Maybe.x

    • 2 March, 2010 / 7:35 pm

      I agree that how you handle your anger, sadness etc can teach your children valuable lessons about emotional intelligence – not sure how much of a good role model I would be though!

  8. 2 March, 2010 / 7:24 pm

    This is really interesting. My initial thought was ‘of course I would cry in front of my children’. But then I thought about how I would feel if I saw either of my parents cry and I know I wouldn’t like it, it would make me uncomfortable (even though I’m the sort of person who cries at everything!). But maybe I’m only made uncomfortable by it because I haven’t seen my parents cry much.

    Hmmmm. Something to think about.

    • 2 March, 2010 / 7:36 pm

      Glad it’s got you thinking! I think you could argue each side very easily. Ultimately though I guess it very much depends on the individuals. Like most things! Damn. I wish there was some kind of generic parenting rule book.

  9. 2 March, 2010 / 8:17 pm

    If I really need to cry, I do.

    When I am upset and worried and they ask me what’s wrong I don’t tell them anymore nothing. I am honest and say that I am upset or worried but that I need some time and I will be okay.

    I do think it is important for kids to see the range of emotions we really feel and to really learn to understand emotions.

  10. 2 March, 2010 / 9:36 pm

    Such a difficult one. I think I was brought up not to show emotion. My sister died when I was 9 and I was told ‘not to cry in front of your mother – it will upset her’ and I took that to heart. I also remember seeing my Dad cry for the first time around that time and being shocked to the core that he wasn’t invincible. So I have not cried much around my children. About 4 years ago my husband and I were going through a very difficult patch, and my son who was about 6 at the time saw me cry and I think it worried him a lot, despite reassurances. However, I think all of the above is not the right way to handle it at all!!

    • 3 March, 2010 / 11:48 am

      It does seem to be more accpetable for mums to cry. I would definitely still feel upset now if I saw my Dad cry – dads are supposed to be solid aren’t they? Your sister’s death must have been awful for you and your parents to deal with. I can’t even begin to imagine xx

  11. 3 March, 2010 / 9:40 pm

    I have cried in front of my daughter on a number of occasions. Like you, it’s hard when you are a single parent and there is no-one else to discuss your feelings with yet your child(ren) depend on you and need you ro be strong, reliable and consistent. I always explain to my daughter why I’m upset (in words she would understand). I think it’s good for her to know getting upset is normal and part of life. It also gives her permission to cry and talk about her feelings if she needs to.

    • 4 March, 2010 / 11:13 am

      I think explaining why you’re upset is important isn’t it? Plus explaining that although you are crying now, you will be alright soon.

  12. 4 March, 2010 / 2:42 pm

    I’m a bit like Rosie. As a single parent, there are times when it’s all going a bit tits up, and I have a good cry. I tend to try and keep it in check a bit (ie no tearing at clothes, downing of pills etc), explain why I’m upset and try to keep it short – so something like, “It’s alright, Mummy is feeling a bit sad because the fridge is broken” (or whatever) but I’m sure a hug from you will help me feel better”

    I think it’s important we model all emotions for our kids and teach them appropriate ways of expressing and handling them. If that doesn’t sound TOO text-booky.

    • 5 March, 2010 / 6:49 am

      *Note to self: no tearing of clothes or downing of pills until after 9pm*

  13. 4 March, 2010 / 9:19 pm

    This touched me as it sounded like it could have been my big sister writing it, a single mama to a 14 year old who never quite feels she’s doing it right as nobody is there to tell her what a wonderful job she does. My Mum was always encouraging of us expressing ourselves and I guess I do the same with my girls now. I do cry in front of them, not in a screaming, scary, mental way (yet) but I explain that I just feel sad and that’s fine. I think it’s a great lesson to learn that you can make someone feel happy again with a big hug 🙂

    • 5 March, 2010 / 6:59 am

      That’s true – as a single mum you don’t have anyone to share the responsibility, but also don’t have any one to give you feedback or tell you if you do something well. Luckily I have lovely family and friends who are very nice and tell me I am fab a lot, but sometimes you do think ‘well they WOULD say that wouldn’t they?’!

  14. 8 March, 2010 / 2:37 am

    My Mom was very emotional and it was a big joke! We didn’t laugh at her but with her I hasten to add. When they got married my father told my mother that she could have 5 cries a year for no reason, but after that he wanted to know why she was crying and I am a chip off the old block. In our family crying is a normal expression of feeling just like laughing till you think you are going to pee. As long as it is accepted for what it is, then I think it is actually very heatlhy for children to see that everyone has crying spells and that life still goes on.

    It’s healthy and it’s normal to let your feelings show. It is not healthy and not normal for anyone else to take responsibility for your emotions.

  15. sarah the suburbanite
    16 March, 2010 / 9:58 pm

    Since Rich died it has been vital for my 6 year old that he *does* see me cry and be upset, but then that he sees me man up, plaster the Game Face on, and get on with things. As a family we were always very good at expressing our emotions, good and bad, and that has held us in good stead now.

    *hug*

  16. PamelaC
    14 June, 2012 / 3:27 am

    I am going through a difficult time, i am barely making ends meet and I am a little depressed. I dont want to be grumpy or yell at my daughter but sometimes i just loose it, i have cried in front of her two times and I feel bad for thinking she probably thinks it is something she did, because it is not. I really dont know what to do. Its difficult for me. I rarely lose my temper with her, but i have been doing that more recently. Any thoughts on how I can take control back?

    • 14 June, 2012 / 2:53 pm

      Gosh, it sounds like you are going through a tough time Pamela. First off, do you have any friends or family you can turn to for support? It always helps to be able to talk things through with someone, or maybe there is someone who could take your daughter for a few hours to give you a bit of time to yourself to relax? Depending on how old your daughter is, it might help to sit her down and explain to her why you are feeling a bit sad at the moment, in very simply terms so as not to worry her, but just to reassure her that it isn’t her fault in any way?

  17. Michelle
    20 August, 2012 / 6:43 am

    I think showing our children that we are human and that sometimes we get sad, mad
    And mess up is healthy. I thought my mom was perfect and never struggled in anything and as an adult would feel guilty and WEAK when I had struggles or felt sad or scared or angry. I think it’s healthy to embrace the fact we are weak, it is ok to mess up, and to pick ourselves back up again, to learn grow and change and apologize if we mess up. If I cry in front of my daughter I let her know mommy feels sad sometimes and cries but mommy will be ok. And I pick myself back up again and try again with life. That is true strength, getting back up again.

    • 23 August, 2012 / 8:14 am

      That sounds like a really healthy approach Michelle. I think you’re absolutely right that it can do more harm than good to portray yourself as perfect, or completely oblivious to pain or upset of any kind.

  18. Emily
    21 November, 2012 / 10:22 pm

    Hi, my children saw me cry for the first time today and I’m worried about the effect it may have had, especially on my oldest, my 7 year old son. My husband is away for work, I’ m presently suffering from depression and although I cope fine most of the time, just broke down completely. It was the kids bedtime and the three were really playing up, my son was being very agressive, kicking, punching, refusing to go to bed, my 6 year old was just smiling and refusing to do anything I asked and my 3 year old joined in and started screaming, banging around and slapping me. I tried everything I could think of and nothing was working. I felt the tears coming and went downstairs, but then started crying uncontrollably and they heard.
    I tried to calm down and went back to see them and my son started crying and couldn’t stop. Saying he was supposed to be like Daddy and he’s not and he’d made me cry. I stayed with him for a long time until he eventually calmed. Now I feel awful! Have I done something traumatising? Help please

    • 22 November, 2012 / 8:07 am

      Hi Emily, thanks very much for your comment and no need to apologise, I’m not actually single at the moment either!

      Please don’t worry. I’m no expert but it sounds to be like your reaction to the situation was totally normal and understandable, regardless of your depression. I’m sure I would react exactly the same if I was having to deal with all that.

      I’m sure it was a bit of a shock for your children given that you normally hold things together so well but I’m sure you won’t have done any long term damage with just one incident. I do believe as well that as they get that bit older, children need to see that there is a consequence to their actions and that it isn’t OK for them to behave badly and that one consequence is that you might be upset – that’s an OK lesson to learn at seven isn’t it?

      Are you getting support for your depression? Do you have any friends and family you can go to for help, either practical help or just to offload your feelings a bit?

      I’m sorry I can’t offer any more tangible help other than to reassure you that I’m sure they will all be fine. It was bedtime too remember and everything seems much worse when you’re small and tired too!

      Xx

      • Emily
        22 November, 2012 / 9:51 am

        Hi,
        Thank you so much for you reply, it all just got too much last night. I’m taking anti-depressants at the moment, and my husband is great when he’s around, but he’s working a lot just now.

        We were living in Quebec for 10 years and have recently moved to France, I don’t have any local friends yet and my family is in the UK. I know things will get better, but it does get overwhelming at times.

        I think you are right that showing I have feelings isn’t so bad, but I don’t want to put my incapacity to cope on his shoulders, he can be quite sensitive. It was the first time though.
        Thanks for your support xx

        • 22 November, 2012 / 9:57 am

          Blimey, so you’ve moved half way around the world, your family is in a different country, you’ve not made any friends yet and you’ve got small children too – I am not surprised you’re feeling a little overwhelmed at the moment!!

          Don’t be too hard on yourself. When I moved to Bristol last year I felt pretty down in the dumps for the first few months, and that was PURELY because of having moved somewhere new and worrying about making new friends, without any of the rest of the stuff. And we’d only moved 50 miles!! It DID get better though.

          Are you doing things to help meet you meet other mums in the area? I know it’s really hard, especially when you’re depressed, to go out and meet new people but it really helps to have other people to talk to who understand what you’re going through, even if it’s just so they can say things like ‘God, I shout at my kids all the time!’. It can be very reassuring.

  19. Emily
    21 November, 2012 / 10:30 pm

    Hello again, Sorry I’m not a single mum, I hadn’t realised, still need some advice though. Sorry.

  20. Jacquie
    5 January, 2013 / 3:46 am

    Hi. Can someone give me some advice. I took my son shopping the other day and he was misbehaving in the store. He almost knocked me over once and then kicked the back of my leg. My son is usually a good boy (11 year old) and he is always considerate but I don’t know what got into him. Anyway, I am a single mom too and I dropped him off at his dads after shopping but because I wasn’t going to see him, I started to cry and told him that I was very disappointed in the way he behaved and that I never wanted him to show that disrespect again. I was on “that time of the month” and my emotions were running pretty high. I called him a short while after and explained to him the reason that I cried. He told me that he loved me very much and that he was sorry. I feel badly for crying in front of him and now how do I punish him for what he did. Should I wait until he comes home 3 days from now or do I just leave it considering we had a talk on the phone. I would really appreciate some advice. Thanks.

  21. 1 February, 2013 / 5:36 pm

    Jo,

    I was going to say good morning, but it might be later where you are.

    I am looking for blogs that address the issue of vulnerability, which is how I got here. I have my own blog relative to that, http://dbumreflections.wordpress.com/. I found in this post you raise some good questions.

    My own story has similar reflections. One Christmas Day, at the accident that claimed the life of a friend’s 9 year old daughter, I decided that the armor I had developed over the years was more a hindrance than a help. Right there on the scene, after all was said and done, I let out years of trauma. From it was born the web site this comment panel asked for, and my blog in particular.

    It is my view that as humans, we are vulnerable by nature. We don’t have turtle shells, porcupine needles, gazelle speed, skunk odor, sharp teeth or poison glands, stingers, or anything like that. Standing naked, we are incredible soft and vulnerable. We need clothes and food in short order to even stay alive.

    We develop the needle like exterior, the stabbing glare, the sharp, poisonous tongue to protect ourselves, as we not only are physically vulnerable, we discover we are emotionally as well. It’s our lot.

    Letting our children see this is in my opinion, a good thing. If I want my children to be emotionally adjusted, flexible, and healthy, they need to see a reasonable expression of that with their parents who can not only have those emotions, but realize that emotions arise and subside, suffering isn’t the end of the world, and that in the midst of it love and laughter can still function.

    In the last 15 months I have been laid off, responded to the accident (I’m an emergency medical technician and was on duty that day) that claimed my friend’s child, initiated a separation now heading to divorce, and had 2 biopsies. I have learned a lot about vulnerabilities, and it has definitely changed the relationship with my two sons, both older.

    With younger children a bit of wisdom might be involved, but letting them know how you feel is far better than showing them how to cover it over. That’s been my experience anyway, and one I learned from my own parents.

    Thanks for you post. I tip my hat to any woman who is a single mom.

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