The most rewarding part of sharing my obstacles with my kids and having them share theirs with me is the message we are communicating: We are in this together. Just as Bruce Feller described, “the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back…. may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”
While there are many positives that can result from our honest admissions, we need to make a distinction between sharing in order to build a strong family narrative and placing an unnecessary burden on the shoulders of our kids.
Like it or not, life provides all of us with plenty of subject matter, including difficult experiences we’ve overcome or might still be struggling with—illness, death, loss, mental health, aging parents, divorce, addiction. Knowing how to put these difficulties in the proper context and when to bring them up will depend on several factors. Struggles are most appropriately shared when we have arrived at some conclusions, have a plan in place, have experienced healing, and when we are calm rather than emotionally distraught.
Challenges should be shared at age-appropriate levels and not as a means of venting, gossiping, or unloading on the child. They should be shared with the emotional maturity and temperament of the child in mind. While my older daughter has an insatiable thirst for information and yearns for the difficult details, my other daughter has nightmares about sensitive subjects, so I keep this in mind when I decide how and what to share with each of them.
When I am directly in the midst of a struggle, having a hard time managing my emotions, and feel like I might lose control, I tell my kids this: “I’m having trouble talking right now, and I can’t talk right now because I feel very frustrated.”
If I am able, I might even briefly tell them why: “I am late for this doctor’s appointment, and I feel stressed when I am running late,” or “I am feeling really upset because I accidentally erased a fourth of the book I am writing” (true story), or “Speaking at events makes me anxious, but that just shows me how much I care and want to do a good job.”
So that my kids are not left wondering how they should respond, I may say, “Thank you for giving me quiet right now while I calm down,” or “What I could really use right now is your kindness and love.”
Although I did not practice emotional regulation during my children’s early years, failing to do so helped me understand how important it is for them to know my struggle is not about them. As I have uncovered specific factors that are emotional triggers for me, I have let my family know about them. Not only does this help me to have inner peace during the stressful situation, but my kids are prepared. For example, when I become lost while driving, my heart begins to race, and my brain is clouded by fear. When I say, “I am lost,” Natalie offers assurances such as, “It’s okay, Mom. We can ask for help,” or “Let’s pull over. We’ll figure this out together.”
Often, my daughters will come to me after I’ve experienced a setback to see how I’m doing and ask if I’m feeling better. I believe this is another benefit of sharing our struggles in a healthy, responsible way. Not only does it model healthy coping skills for our children, but it gives them a chance to be empathetic. What a gift that will be to their friends, family members, and even to themselves in the future.
When sharing our struggles--whether small daily problems, heavy current issues, or struggles of the past—it is important to consider our delivery and tone as much as the words we say. This does not mean we shouldn’t show emotion. Each time I told my children we were moving away from family and friends, I cried. But while I told them I was sad, I also said, “I believe there is a reason God is directing us to this place, and we’re going to be okay because we have each other.”
That last line, spoken many times throughout my life, is a critical piece to building a unifying narrative: We will stick together through thick and thin, and we are divinely equipped to handle whatever comes our way.
Rachel Macy Stafford is a New York Times bestselling author on a quest to help others grasp what really matters and stop missing out on life. This article was adapted from Rachel’s new book Live Love Now, used by permission of Zondervan. You can follow Rachel at handsfreemama.com and on Instagram.