Vulnerability. It’s a trendy word. When we talk about parenting and mental health the idea of “being vulnerable” even with those closest to us can evoke feelings of panic. Vulnerability by definition is, “the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.” It’s hard to imagine anything about that statement that doesn’t make you want to run! There can however be a sense of freedom and security that comes from choosing to be vulnerable, particularly as a parent. For one, you get to let your guard down with people who love and care for you. This creates a space where we can be at ease and allow our most authentic selves to shine through. Being vulnerable also allows others around you to feel more inclined to be transparent and honest themselves.
Many of us weren’t raised by parents who showed us their vulnerability. In fact, some still see vulnerability as a sign of weakness. It’s not uncommon for parents to try to hide their ‘big’ emotions from their kids. Silently crying in a pantry or bathroom, quickly wiping away tears because “you have allergies” or saying nothing is wrong when your face and tone tell a different story are just a few examples of this. Many of us have been there. And the truth is it feels scary and sometimes even burdensome to show how we’re feeling to others. However, current research will show how effective it can be at strengthening the parent-child relationship.
One of my favorite authors and researchers, Dr. Brene Brown, also known as the vulnerability guru, has done extensive work on understanding the power of vulnerability and the often associated emotions like fear and shame. Her infamous Ted Talks, podcasts, and many books dive right into the power we gain when we embrace this state of mind. Imagine what this can look like in your parenting style.
Instead of having your kids feel guarded 24-7 or worse, avoid you and others by hiding their feelings until one day they practically explode, the best way to approach this in parenting is to practice it yourself. In one of her books, Dr. Brown states, “We too often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love.” Engaging in a vulnerability practice as a parent can lead to creating a better understanding between you and your child which can strengthen your relationship and communication in the best way.
The uncertainty of the pandemic has made it hard to create feelings of calm at home and has contributed to communication struggles among families despite having been around each other constantly. It’s more important than ever to help our children navigate such a challenging time while keeping up with healthy routines at home for ourselves as well. Helping our kids manage their emotions and behaviors while building resiliency through vulnerability is one way we can work towards this...but how?
Here are six tips to help engage in vulnerability practices with your children at home:
Don’t wait to start being vulnerable with your kids as if it’s a chore list item to check off. Start now and address feelings and concerns as they arise, if possible. It’s ok to wait if you’re in the middle of something urgent that requires your full attention like driving, but try not to put these conversations off for too long. If something is upsetting you, or you notice something is bothering your child, speak up. Delaying a conversation around what you or your child may be feeling only creates a false sense of reality that we can ‘hold off’ on talking about our issues and sometimes may never return to it which often leads to resentment.
State exactly what you need. Your child needs to know that being vulnerable is safe. It may not always feel that way in the moment but ultimately having those hard conversations around why you’re feeling angry or upset helps both of you grow. Let’s say you’ve had a difficult day and feel overwhelmed (or sad, or mad, etc.), then say that. Ask for help if you need it. Then afterwards, acknowledge with your family how relieving or comforting this can be- to be able to say what you’re really feeling and not have to hide parts of yourself.
With yourself and your kids. Your relationship with your child should be one where you aren’t afraid to express yourself. You shouldn’t feel like a hostage in your relationship. You don’t have to be insensitive or dismissive but you can express yourself genuinely and still be respectful. This gives you an opportunity to engage in an authentic exchange of feedback without either of you being overly defensive. The more honest you are with them the more honest they will feel they can be with you.
It really is key. Making sure you're consistent is important in demonstrating that we don’t need to get to a place of burnout before we start to discuss our feelings or only show our emotions ‘sometimes.’ Staying consistent and checking in as a family is critical for your child to witness and will encourage them to keep opening up so long as they aren’t punished or critiqued for it. Remember you wouldn’t want to be shamed for your feelings and neither do they.
Encourage your child to share more by doing the same. Children rely on their caregivers to provide a sense of safety and want to know that you’re in this together so when they come to you about how they’re feeling let them know that you appreciate them being vulnerable and sharing this with you and that it’s ok to not only feel this but to express it appropriately. Share a story of a time where you felt similar or maybe when you’ve made a mistake and what you learned from it. As a parent you want to create an environment where your kids are open to receiving what you’re offering and you both can emotionally grow together.
When you're being vulnerable it’s important to stay present. Giving yourself the ability to ignore that critical inner voice that distracts you will allow you to be in the moment and really understand what’s going on internally. Remember: practice what you preach…if you want your kids to stay present and aware of their emotions and feelings you need to start as well.
Allowing your children to see the real you is important for their emotional growth and maturity. It’s likely you’ll find that you both are similar, and not just with the inherited good looks! It’s much easier to connect with your child if you both can be your true selves. Quite frankly, it humanizes the process of being human. Being vulnerable is a strength. It allows your child to be a part of your life on a deeper level. It enables us to receive feedback easier and helps us be more relatable for our children to come to us when times get tough. It’s the foundation for building trust with your child as well.
Start by having these conversations now and be more transparent with your kids. Be honest with yourself without judgement and live your life. Take accountability for your emotions and develop a greater sense of shared values with your child then follow them. You are not doing your child any favors by shielding them from uncomfortable emotions, so embrace them and use them as teachable moments. The key to connection is vulnerability. It’s often thought of as the glue that bonds us together. And vulnerability is about being honest with who we are, how we feel, and what we need.