The power of being vulnerable as a parent

Some of us were raised by parents who never showed their vulnerability because they equated it with weakness, but the latest research shows that it can strengthen parent-child relationships…

dad sitting with daughter and having a caring conversation

Have you ever quickly wiped away your tears when your child found you crying and tried to explain it away by saying that you had something in your eye? (I have.)

As parents, we often believe that we need to shield our children from negative or uncomfortable emotions – especially our own. If they see us as weak, they might not respect us or feel safe with us. So, we hide away our pain and attempt to be fortresses of stoicism for our children. 

Not only is this unhealthy for us, it doesn’t do our children any favors either. It teaches them that only positive emotions are acceptable and that the bad ones should be suppressed. “Conceal, don’t feel,” cried poor Elsa in Frozen.

How to embrace vulnerability as a parent

Research professor Dr. Brené Brown is the visionary who’s responsible for challenging the notion that vulnerability is weakness in her powerful 2010 TED Talk that has become one of the most viewed TED Talks of all time.

“In our culture, we associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid such as fear, shame and uncertainty,” says Dr. Brown. “Yet we too often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity and love.”

Researchers at Western Washington University asked mothers and their teenage children to exchange stories of vulnerability from their pasts. They discovered that this led to a better understanding of each other and strengthened their relationships in a healthy way.

If you’ve never shown vulnerability to your child before, it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are a few guidelines to help you do it in a way that will bolster your child’s resilience as well as your relationship with them.

  1. Get down on their emotional level

If your child is refusing to go to bed because of the “witches in the closet”, you might be tempted to say, “You know witches don’t exist. Stop stalling and go to bed.” But if you choose instead to tell them a story about one of your childhood fears and how you overcame it, you’ll be using vulnerability as a teaching tool.

You could say, “When I was little, I was scared that there were sharks under my bed. I told Grandma and she suggested that we put a whole bunch of teddy bears under the bed so that there wasn’t any room left for sharks. I was never scared again after that. Do you want to put some teddy bears in your closet?”

  1. Share age-appropriate stories of hardship

Young children will love to hear about the imaginary sharks under your bed, but they’re probably not yet ready to process your tales of teenage angst. Keep those on the backburner until you notice that your child is starting to grapple with similar issues. Similarly, there’s no need to share your party-animal college years with them until they’ve reached adulthood.

  1. End on a positive note

When sharing stories of your challenging experiences with your child, you should be honest about how you felt at the time – sad, scared, angry, anxious or helpless. This will teach them that they’re not alone in experiencing difficult emotions. But once you’ve described the hard part, make sure to share the lessons you learned and the positive outcomes. 

You could tell them about how you didn’t make the swimming team and you were devastated, but that led you to take up the piano which you still love playing to this day. Or about how losing your dad when you were young strengthened your relationship with your mom. This is the part of your story that will help your child build resilience and grit. They’ll learn that no matter how hard a situation feels at the time, we end up making it through and becoming stronger for it.

  1. Read your child’s reactions

Accounts of minor hardships can be shared in the car or at the dinner table. But you might need to set aside a special time to tell a particularly difficult story (such as one that involves losing a loved one) because both you and your child might need extra time to process and discuss it.

If your child doesn’t respond openly to your story right away, tell them that they can ask you any questions they have when they’re ready and leave it for now. You may choose to revisit it when you think your child is ready or wait for them to come to you. 

  1. Ask them to share their vulnerabilities

Once you’ve told your story, ask your child open-ended questions about their experiences, such as, “Has anything like that ever happened to you?” or “Have you ever felt bullied at school?” If they seem open to sharing, ask more non-judgemental questions in an open-hearted way and offer your support.

You’ll probably find that wearing your heart on your sleeve will encourage your child to do the same and that your relationship will be fortified in the process.

 

 

More on Family Life…

You’ve probably heard that having dinner together as a family is a good thing for your kids, but you may not realize that it could change your child’s life. Find out more in our article, Dinner: 30 minutes to a more connected family.

It may be tempting to make our children’s lives easier, but doing so only makes their futures more difficult. Here’s how to stop ourselves. See our article on Snowplow parenting: Why and how to stop clearing the road for our kids.