Why "I Am Fine" Doesn't Work With Kids During Divorce

Kids know when we are trying to suppress our feelings, so stop trying so hard.

Posted May 18, 2020

Stocksnap Used With Permission
Source: Stocksnap Used With Permission

A recent study in the Journal of Family Therapy examined the physiological repercussions of parents suppressing their feelings. It came as no surprise to me, as someone who has been working with divorced families for years, that children’s moods were directly impacted by a parent’s attempt to push their own feelings down.

What was new to me was that they found physiological changes in the children as well. Even if the parents said with their words, “I am fine” the children felt the same stress response the parents were feeling. When your heart is racing out of your chest with fear that your ex is going to take you back to court and you say, “Mommy and daddy are working it out nicely,” your child also feels that heart racing. Imagine how confusing this is for a kid. Your words are saying one thing, but they can feel that your emotions are quite different. 

I know this realization can first feel a bit intrusive. You might have immediately thought, “Do I have to tell my kid every detail of my life now?” You do not have to share your deepest and darkest secrets and feelings with your kids (never a good idea), but you do need to be aware that your kids can likely see through your suppression of feelings. 

How do you handle it when you are really angry at your ex and your kids ask you: “Mom, why are you so angry?” Instead of saying, “I am fine,” here are some responses you can try: 

You are so thoughtful to ask. Mommy is feeling really frustrated right now. Do you know how you feel when you sometimes can’t figure out that math problem? I feel like that right now.

Yes, you are right, my love, I really feel like yelling into my pillow

You are such a good emotions detective. Yes, I am angry right now. I am letting myself feel that now so I can feel better later.

Yes, I am angry now. Please know that there is nothing you did to upset me (if this is true), but I just feel this way right now. 

Thank you for asking, it feels so good to have you notice how I feel. I am angry now and know it will pass.

These responses validate the child’s experience of your mood without giving away too much information or breaking boundaries. Many of us were brought up with parents who suppressed their emotions. You knew back then something was wrong. Your intuition was spot on. Keep trusting it.

References

r. Waters, S. F., Karnilowicz, H. R., West, T. V., & Mendes, W. B. (2020). Keep it to yourself? Parent emotion suppression influences physiological linkage and interaction behavior. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication.