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How to Unpack Your Family’s Emotional Baggage and Start Fresh With Your Kids

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Show Notes

What did you learn about handling anger, sadness, and worry as a child from your family? How does that affect your parenting? We unpack our family baggage in this episode to see how we can stop dysfunctional generational patterns and give our kids the space for healthy feelings.

This is a very special episode about three of the most powerful patterns that shape not just our relationships with our families, partners, children, and friends but the world outside our homes.

Lynn walks us through the very big sweet spot where we want to be modeling for our kids healthy emotional management and examples of the extremes to avoid.

Links to what we talked about

The Jane Fonda documentary

Our prior episode on flattening our emotional curve

“Ac Cent Tchu Ate The Positive” that great Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters cover

Everyone should watch Lynn’s video on her website of a lecture she gave called “Can Mr. Rogers Save Us All?”

Episode Transcript

Lynn Lyons  0:02

Hi everyone. As Robin and I released this episode on unpacking your family’s emotional baggage, we’d like for you to know that we recorded this almost two weeks ago. And although we don’t reference what has been happening in our country this last week, we’re hopeful that this episode will help and support you around the universal patterns of anger, sadness and worry. These powerful emotions cannot be avoided, now or ever, in our homes, or out in the world, and our children need our guidance.

Lynn Lyons  0:00 

So, Hi, everybody. Hi, Robin.

Robin Hutson  0:03 

Hi, Lynn.

Lynn Lyons  0:04 

How are you today?

Robin Hutson  0:05 

Doing well. Excited to talk about this next subject because I think you have a lot to offer here.

Lynn Lyons  0:12 

This is a big topic. I feel like everyone is impacted by this. Because we’re talking about family culture. And we’re talking about the legacy of family culture. And really, here’s the question that, as you, as a parent, are thinking about how you manage your kids, how did you grow up? What was it like with your parents? And what did you learn about handling different emotions and expressing different emotions, tolerating emotions and other people? This is a big topic that I see as so important to what we want to teach our kids.

Robin Hutson  0:56 

Yeah, I’m sure that there’s a lot of moments you have with your families (that are your clients) of these A-ha moments for the parents. We have to start somewhere. So, the context of how we’re parenting is often framed with how we were raised.

Lynn Lyons  1:09 

Yeah, one of the things I do when I’m meeting a family, and particularly if it’s a family that really is dealing with anxiety, I’ll say to the kids, “Well, which one of your parents do you think is the worrier? Or are both of them worriers?” And the kids virtually never say, “Oh, gosh, that’s a really tough question, Lynn.” They immediately know which parent that I’m talking about. And then I ask, “So what about the grandparents? Who do you think taught your mom how to be a worrier?” Or, “Who do you think showed that for your parents’ family?” And the kids, again, “The whole family!” It’s often sometimes… we laugh a lot, because they’re like, “Oh my gosh, if you knew my grandma!” Right? or “My Pop Pop is such a warrior.”

They’re really aware of it when we when we talk about it. And then it opens up this whole conversation about how these patterns are passed down and what becomes the language of the family in terms of their emotions and the way they manage problems and crises and relationships. It’s always a part of a family’s interactions. There’s no way around it.

Robin Hutson  2:22 

This sounds like a very good reality TV show like the postscript to the Newlywed Game, after they marry, then having the grandkids come back and talk about their parents and grandparents. So, when you think about the emotional culture of a family, what are you talking about specifically? It’s not really about our identity and our heritage. It’s more from a psychotherapist’s viewpoint. What do you mean?

Lynn Lyons  2:51 

So, what I mean is what does a family do when big emotions show up. And big emotions are very often normal emotions. So how does a family respond during a period of grief? How does a family respond when somebody is just feeling sad? What does a family do to manage an uncertain situation? So, let’s just think of, what does one family do? They get on a plane and — you know— you’re a traveler. So, we talked about this because traveling requires flexibility. What does one family do when they get on a plane and the pilot comes on and says, “Oh, gosh, we’ve just been fogged in, we have to go back to the terminal, and we’re not going to be able to leave tonight.”

So, how does a family manage those emotions? And what did you see your parents doing? How did you see your parents navigate through the tricky parts of life so that when somebody was angry or disappointed or anxious or when there was a death or when there was sadness, how did that family talk about it? How did you support each other? And sometimes, more impactfully, how did you deny it? How did you close it down? How did you shut it down? “There’s nothing to see here. We aren’t going to have that discussion. We’re not going to tolerate that.”

And there’s just a lot there, that when you think about the way that you are interacting with your children, what are you doing with their emotional lives and their responses? A lot of it probably comes from what you were taught as a child. Sometimes, you will embrace what you were taught. And then, other times, interestingly, people will go in the opposite direction and very much reject what they were taught.

So being able to recognize that and look back on that and understand where those patterns come from is really helpful in your own parenting. Because it comes up very quickly. It’s very reflexive for a lot of people, and they go through that with their children without even having a lot of self-awareness about it. So, it’s good to sort of bring it up to the surface and examine it a little bit.

Robin Hutson  5:05 

It’s almost like when you have a family, and both of the parents are in your session, you could go over what is your emotional dowry, what you bring to the family. So, for example, one family may have a strength where they had no issues with expressing anger, but, the partner’s family supplanted anger, and no one expressed anger. That comes up a lot of times, like one family was okay talking about sex, and the other member of the couple said, “Oh, my family never talked about sex.”

You know, it’s absolutely about assessing the backgrounds and saying, “My family did this, and I do feel this was really like one of the better things I’m bringing, but my family also did this. And this is a pattern I want to be aware of, and, and not repeat.”

Lynn Lyons  5:54 

Yeah. And you know, really good marriage therapists, the really good couples’ therapists, that’s what they do when they’re talking to couples, and they’re trying to help them work through what’s going on between them. There’s a lot of taking stock of where you learned patterns are and what feels normal to you and how it feels so different to you or to your partner.

I remember talking to one family, and I think it was the mom was saying that in her family, if there was an issue, if somebody was upset about something, they would have a big blow up and they would talk about it, but then everybody would sort of be okay, and they would resolve it in a healthy way.

And her partner’s family, it was just generations of quiet, seething resentment. So you can imagine if you’re in a relationship with somebody like that, that when she was upset about something, she really wanted to get it out in the open and talk about it. And her partner had no idea how that looked or how it would end, so he would just shut down. And his whole idea was if we don’t talk about it, then we don’t have to deal with it.

Now imagine if you’ve got kids, and you’re trying to parent together, and you have these two very disparate ways of dealing with conflict, not talking about that and not recognizing that becomes a problem and what feels really good about it.

And I know this from my own marriage, which is going on 30 years in a month. I know this from my own marriage is that when you are talking to your partner, and they say to you, “You know what? I get why I’m doing this because this is what I learned in my family that feels so different than the ultimate like if you want to throw gasoline on a marital conflict, when you say “You’re being just like your mother,” or “You sound just like your father,” right? That is a disaster. But when you yourself, say “You know what? I recognize I’m doing this because this is what I learned in my family.” Oh my gosh, it’s like melting butter.

Robin Hutson  7:55 

Is it as bad if you say, “I recognize why you’re doing this because you’ve seen a repeated pattern of your mother or father doing it for you. Is that the same gasoline?”

Lynn Lyons  8:06 

Well, that’s a little that’s a little bit more sophisticated gasoline, but unfortunately, can have the same outcome. But I think that one of the things that we can show our kids, and that we can talk about in our families, is how are these patterns passed down?

And then when you acknowledge them, I think that’s one of the interesting things is that we don’t have to be so defensive and have such strong ownership of these patterns. Right? That they, they’re yours and you’re, you know, “How dare you insult my family?” If you just say, “Yep, this is what is kind of interesting. This is what happened in my family. And this is how I recognize it’s impacting me,” and you start talking about it, and then you talk to your kids about it. It really is kind of interesting. It becomes sort of this curious exploration.

It’s sort of like the 23andme of emotional investigation where you begin to see these patterns; it’s kind of cool.

And it doesn’t have to be something that becomes so conflicted and so angry. It’s just an exploration. And it is it is pretty interesting.

Robin Hutson  9:11 

So, let’s think of it from a high-level discussion. You, as a family therapist has had access to talking to hundreds and hundreds of families over the years, so, I think there are some ground rules for thinking of how to think about your own family. Because no family is perfect.

Lynn Lyons  9:29 

Well, I think the three, sort of the three big ones that we can look at that we can examine in terms of how does a family manage, I think are anger, anxiety, and then sadness and loss and grief, say so let me give you an example of a family in each of those categories may be that is sort of an extreme. But then we’ll go back to a baseline. So there are some families where death and loss and grief are very much a part of what they talk about— very much a part that life and death and birth and all of that those cycles of life are very much a part of what they experience.

I have a friend, who is my age, and she’s Irish. And she remembers as a as a child, they still had in-home wakes for people when they had passed away, and the kids were involved in it. So, there was a lot of talk, and there was a lot of mourning and there was a lot of grieving, and there was a lot of celebrating and laughing and crying and so that whole sadness and grief and loss was very much a part of her family’s culture. That’s a healthy way to look at it. Now. I’m sure that in those Irish families, there were other things going on, but in terms of their ability to grieve.

Now, let’s look, let’s see, who can we think of in sort of popular, popular historical culture? Well, I can think of a few examples actually. So, if you’ve if you’ve watched the Jane Fonda documentary, which…

Robin Hutson  11:11 

 That was so good.

Lynn Lyons  11:12 

You can put the link up from that. But Jane Fonda’s mother committed suicide. And after she died, no one ever spoke of her again. Her father never mentioned her. I don’t think she went to the funeral. There was absolutely… her mother literally disappeared from her young life. There was no talk about it. There was no mention of it. So that’s the other extreme, and I know I’ve talked to several families where that was the case where a parent died and or a sibling died, and it was just done and over with.

I remember looking back and some of you are going to be too young to remember this, but Jacqueline Kennedy lost a baby. There was no discussion of that during the time when she was newly coming into the spotlight, and that she was I think that he was running for President, I can’t remember the exact timing of it. But she had a horrible loss. There was not a discussion of it, there was not room for grief or mourning or talking about that. So that would be an example in terms of loss and grief and sadness, of how differently families can manage that.

I remember, and I think I’ve talked about this before, but there are some families that don’t want to have pets, because the parents are so worried that the children won’t be able to handle the death of a pet, and not be able to work through that. So instead of having that experience, they say, no, we’re not going to even allow our children to experience death and loss and sadness in general.

Robin Hutson  12:39 

I recall we’ve talked about that, where a parent is not wanting their child to experience the pain of loss, of losing a pet. So that’s, that’s an anxious parent wanting to eliminate their child’s discomfort.  But if you’re from a family where they just want to push away grief and not acknowledge it, and not discuss it. Or even thinking of how we as a culture didn’t discuss miscarriage loss and other things before, it’s just it’s shying away from the vulnerability of sadness. Yes. Perceiving that sadness as weakness.

Lynn Lyons  13:14 

Yeah. And I think vulnerability is a really important word as you talk about that that sadness is weakness. And I think that sadness is scary. If you grew up in a family where you never saw your parents cry, and so, then if they did cry, that meant that something was terribly wrong.

Or if you grew up in a family, perhaps where someone was really experiencing sadness, or grief or despair in a very deep way, and so you saw that parent crying a lot and grieving a lot. That’s scary for you, too.

And I think what we’re really talking about today is how can you talk about that and understand that and just sort of revisit that a little bit so that your own children, you can figure out what’s going to be the healthy way for you to talk about and experience and show these emotions to your children.

So on both ends of the spectrum, if you’ve got a parent that says, you know, crying is for sissies, or we’re not going to show sadness, or the other extreme, where you’ve got a parent who is in great sadness and is crying all the time, and you can’t feel as if they’re there for you emotionally. Both of those extremes are something that you want to pay attention to as you’re parenting your own child. And how would you talk about that differently?

How would you talk about sadness and grief and loss with your children in a way that might be different than the way that it was talked about or not talked about in your family?

That’s what you really want to pay attention to.

And the same goes for anger. So, say you came from a family where there was explosive anger, maybe even abuse and violence. Maybe there was you know, real volatility that made you feel very frightened as a child or maybe you came from a family where you knew that there was anger, but it was never talked about. And so maybe it was passive aggressive. Maybe you were in between two parents that were very angry at each other, but never worked on their conflict, but went between, you know, used you as a conduit for their anger.

Then if that’s the family history that you have with anger, how are you going to talk to your kids and teach your children and demonstrate to your children that anger is a normal and expectable reaction? And how do we demonstrate that to kids? And how do we teach them the way to express their anger and the appropriate way to let people know when they’re feeling anger, such that it isn’t at one of those extremes?

Robin Hutson  15:51 

When you talk about that, and I think about my own family and the legacy around specific emotions, it’s very interesting that I think of how I reacted to my mom whose behavior also was a reaction of her mom’s— my grandmother’s, and in both of them had two opposite approaches to sadness, for example.

So, then I think of my own reaction to sadness as a mom and why, you know, I guess the correct answer— if there’s a correct answer— is that vanilla ice cream goal? Can I sit with my own child’s sadness while remaining in vanilla ice cream so that I’m centering their emotional experience? I’m validating their emotional experience, and I’m not bringing the baggage of my, my mother’s and grandmother’s and their legacy of reaction to their emotions. Right? Isn’t… is that what our goal is?

Lynn Lyons  16:48 

Yeah. And the other goal too is that being able to allow your children to see your expression of sadness or anger or worry in a way that doesn’t frighten them. So say in that situation that your child is sitting with you, and you are feeling incredibly sad about something, how can you express that in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming to them— in a way that doesn’t make them feel like they need to do something to rescue you or get away from you.

So there’s two things going on. There is you being able to sit with your child’s emotion in a way that lets them know that it’s okay for them to express it, and you’re going to sit there and be vanilla ice cream, you’re going to be that holding space for them.

And then also how are you going to express your own emotion so that it doesn’t overwhelm them? Because when we think about parental expression of emotion, and if you think about your own childhood, if you had a parent that expressed their emotion in a way that felt out of control for you, then it is very likely that you’re not going to be comfortable with your own expression of that emotion.

So, it’s being able to show the emotion in a way that it’s manageable, and also a way to hold the emotion in a way that’s manageable. And one of the one of the quick things that happens, you know, with sadness and with anger and with anxiety, (although anxiety we’ll talk about in a moment, because that’s a little bit different) is that we express it in a way that makes a child feel scared.

And being able to, you know, say you experienced a loss. How do you express your sadness in front of your child so that they know it’s okay to have those strong feelings? That it’s okay to grieve? That it’s okay to be disappointed? That it’s okay to cry? That it’s okay to have it come and go.

Those are all the things that we want to help our kids understand. So, when those emotions come up, that they have a model that they’re going to feel and they’re going to get through it because that’s the thing that’s scary for kids is when will this end? How will we get through this?

Robin Hutson  19:06 

Well, obviously, you know this. So, you know, I lost my mom when my daughter was five. So, I did have to grieve in front of a young child while pregnant with my second child.

So that was a really fun time. I always knew to be open with my sadness, because you can’t hide it. And also, when you supplant it for too long, it just doesn’t work either. But that’s an interesting thing you said of, you know, you have to express grief and loss in a way that is authentic, but the boundary is that you don’t want your kids to feel like they need to rescue you. Which obviously sounds really important, but there’s…what is the balance of letting them be empathic that you are sad? And then if they want to, do you just intervene and tell them no, you don’t need to go down a rescuing path? “I don’t need your rescuing. I just need the space to feel sad about losing grandma or losing grandpa.”

Lynn Lyons  20:02 

Yeah. And so, yeah. And so, you’d be very direct about it like you can you can say, I’m feeling really sad right now. So, say, they see you crying, or they see you grieving. And they say, you know, “Mommy, are you sad?” And you say, “I’m really, I’m feeling very sad right now because I’m thinking about Grandma, I’m thinking about Grandpa, and what I would that I can have from you right now is if you came over here and gave me a big hug, that would make me feel better. And then I can handle this sadness. And you can go off and be you.” Right?

So, you give them…you show them how can they be empathic to you and then you give them the message that this is okay. You can be empathic to me; you can give me a hug that is so loving and helpful. And now you can go off and still be you. And I think that that all of the stuff that goes unspoken, is the stuff that is so hard for kids to figure out.

And so, when we’re experiencing emotion, so say you were grieving, and you weren’t crying about the loss of your mom. And your daughter said, “Mommy, what’s the matter?” And you said, “Nothing, nothing, nothing! I’m fine!” Right? Or you said, “You know, I’m not going to be able to handle this, I’ll never get over this.”

Either one of those things, they don’t know what to do with that. So, you tell them, you say, “Come here and give me a hug.” And maybe… let’s share a happy memory that we have of Grandma, because that’ll make us both feel better.” And so, you walk them through the process of being able to express it, and then being able for them to move on and continue to be five or continue to be 15 or continue to be seven, however old they are.

And it’s the same with anger, right?  You have an angry moment, and they say what’s about and you say, Oh, I am so I’m sorry, I just got really angry about this. And I am going to take a little break. I’m going to take a few deep breaths, or I’m going to go and take a walk. And I’m going to work through this. Thank you for checking in on me. I got this. It’s all of the denial of it. So, think about the two, the two unhealthy extremes are the denial of it, the visit isn’t happening or the I’m going to overwhelm you with my feelings.

And there is a there is a big sweet spot in the middle. And there’s a lot of room. It’s not this little tiny, sweet spot. It’s a big sweet spot in the middle where you can express it, you can articulate it, right?

There’s that emotional literacy, you give them the words, you ask for something from them, so they know how to help, but it’s something small and age appropriate, of course, and then you give them permission to move forward and you show them that you’re capable of doing that, too.

So, you know, we know that that when parents are really, really anxious when parents are really, really depressed that children step into a role, where they’re trying to fix it. They’re trying to feel safe; they’re trying to feel okay, and it becomes pretty detrimental over time. Because that child hasn’t been given the room to develop their own self and their own experience and their own feelings.

Robin Hutson  23:08 

Getting back to grief because grief is a slightly separate situation than having a depressed parent. Because grief is situational.

Lynn Lyons  23:18 

That’s right.

Robin Hutson  23:18 

But I think that’s an interesting thing when I think back to those very challenging times, right after my mom’s death and having a young daughter who was still so you know, just soaking on my vibes, our proximity was so there. I think that that’s true. I think that if the way to look at it as if you feel like you can’t hit it in this very big sweet spot of talking about your sadness, that’s absolutely the time that you figure out a way to get in your car by yourself and just let out grief tears.

Lynn Lyons  23:51 

That’s right.

Robin Hutson  23:51 

But that’s also the exact way probably for people who are handling powerful anger as well, right? Like there’s just that limit of how I can express my emotions with my kids in this sweet spot. Otherwise, I’m going to take this privately.

Lynn Lyons  24:06  

That’s right.

Robin Hutson  24:07 

And then the big question also is if that’s about emotional management, which is what we talked about before, and that flattening our emotional curve episode, is our goal to always be able to process our emotions within the sweet spot, or is the goal to know when we can know when we can’t?

Lynn Lyons  24:24 

I think that’s absolutely the goal is to know when you can and know when you can’t. Right, so you don’t have to do it immediately. And I think you saying I have to get in my car and go for a drive and let out those angry tears or those that grieving cry that I need to have. That’s absolutely appropriate.

The idea that you have to do everything correctly in the moment as a parent, that’s unattainable. And so, remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint.

And so, you can have moments in which you’re out of your sweet spot and maybe your kids even witness them. But then what you teach them when you come back to it is you give them a little bit of insight into what the process was that you were going through. And you show them the ending.

You know, it’s really interesting. This reminds me of this, they did this research a while ago, where they were asking kids— probably grown-ups now— but about their parents fighting. And they found that in families where children witness their parents having conflict, normal, married conflict, not abusive, out of control conflict, but normal parent conflict. And when those kids saw their parents reconcile— saw their parents be okay; saw their parents work through it— those kids did much better in their own ability later on to manage conflict and work through things. So it’s not like we want to take it behind closed doors and not let kids see us work through the process.

Robin Hutson  26:02 

Oh, that’s so interesting, because I think I sort of had this impression that the parents need to have a unified front in a lot of circumstances. And that is the ideal. Maybe ideal is the wrong word. But sometimes you go in, and you have a unified front and you sort of work out your conflict, but not in front of them. Question, but instead, it’s especially, I guess, you never know, like, Oh, this will be an easy thing for us to talk about in front of our kids. And then all of a sudden, there’s some gasoline, you know, I guess you don’t always know. How do you manage that and think about what conflict is good to navigate in front of the children?

Lynn Lyons  26:45 

If you have differing opinions about things, then there’s the undermining of the other parent. So, we want to make sure we don’t do that. Right. So, one parent says, “Sure, it’s fine if you ride your bike to the friend’s house,” and then the other parent comes in and says “Your mother has the worst judgment. We’re not going to listen.” Right. So that’s undermining.

But, and certainly there are certain issues and certain adult issues that you’re not going to argue with in front of your child. But I think the bigger picture is this sort of the overall thing is, is that when parents are angry at each other, and kids see them being frustrated or being angry, and then they see the parents. Now, maybe they don’t hear what the parents are saying, but it’s basically… so let me give you an example.

So, say some parents are having an argument. Let’s say they’re having an argument about whether or not the wife’s brother is going to stay with them over Thanksgiving because he’s a real pain in the ass. And it always causes conflict. So, they’re going to have this discussion. So they start talking about it, it gets a little heated— as you can imagine— and then the parents say in front of the kids, “You know what? We have a really hard time figuring out what to do with Uncle Jeremy, you know what? We’re going to go and talk about this for a little bit. We’re going to go figure this out.”

So, then you can go away. You can have the discussion so that your kids aren’t a part of it. And then you come back. And then they see that there was a reconciliation, or they see that there was some sort of agreement.

So, they don’t have to be a part of the minutiae of it. But I think the other extreme is when people say to me, “I never saw my parents fight, I never saw them angry at each other.” Now, I’m sure there are some couples where they say “We never had a cross word, you hear that every once in a while, and I think uh, OK.

But it’s really about letting your kids see that you can get angry at each other, maybe you do go away, and you talk about it. Maybe you have a, you know, you say we’re going to have a little timeout from each other. And then they see that there’s some resolution. So that’s a really important thing for kids to see if it’s a smaller issue, and they’re having you know, you’re having a political discussion about something or you’re disagreeing about how long we should cook the chicken or whatever. And they can see you working through that.

They don’t have to see the minutiae of the discussion. They don’t have to hear all the words, but they have to see… that it’s okay for them to see… that you were angry at each other. And that it’s okay for them to see you going through a process of reconciliation or figuring it out. And then a process of compromise. And a lot of families, you know, families will say, you know, we never saw any of that, or they see a big blow up big, a huge, angry blow up. And then parents give each other the silent treatment for three days. That’s lousy.

Robin Hutson  29:24 

Yeah, that would be pretty painful.

Lynn Lyons  29:26 

Yeah, I worked with a family once, and the parents didn’t speak to each other for two months. And they were in the house with the kids, and the kids were old enough to know what was going on. And even if you were little, and you didn’t really know what was going on, you knew what was going on.

So that’s it’s really about it’s not again, right? It’s not about emotional reactivity and vomiting on your kids so that they can see all that’s going on and the intensity of it. But it’s about recognizing that emotions are real. They come up. People have conflict. People have sadness. People have grief. People have worry. And how is it that you are showing your kids how to discuss it in a way that does make you vulnerable? In a way that does allow you to work through it? So, if we think about the patterns as you’re thinking about this, think about the patterns in your family.

Let me give you a few that are worth paying attention to. Right. So if you had a pattern in your family that was very passive aggressive, so that when somebody was angry at each other, they never talked about it, or they didn’t put it into words, but everybody knew that they were angry. But it was never spoken about, or that they did things in order to irritate the other person because they were angry.

The blaming pattern. So, when something goes wrong, when you’re feeling angry or frustrated, you immediately blame somebody else. A lack of being able to take ownership for what’s going on with you.

With sadness, the whole the whole idea that you can’t feel sadness. I have talked to many adults who have told me that growing up, they were not allowed to be sad, because it made their parents feel badly. And the parents were really depending upon them to be happy and to be okay. So that’s another pattern that you want to pay attention to.

Robin Hutson  31:19 

Similarly, I grew up in a household like that where I always teased that “Ac Cent Tchu Ate The Positive” was our family mantra— that Andrew Sisters song. But it wasn’t even so much that it’s that it was “Your sadness isn’t valid. It must be your time of the month,” or maybe “It’s a full moon,” or just, you know, “Just keep trucking.” Right? you might be sad, but just keep going. And you know, as an adult now when I think about it, I was very annoyed when, if I was sad, and I wanted to cry to my mom about something she would say, “Maybe you have PMS” as opposed to validating why was sad. She just simply couldn’t handle her own sadness. And she was doing the best she could.

Lynn Lyons  32:02 

Right. And I think that’s such a good example. Because if we’re talking about sadness, or even if we’re talking about worry, right, so if we talk about worry, and you’ve got a family where you’re not allowed to be worried or unsure or uncertain about anything, then when somebody says, because what you’re talking about, Robin, is sort of the denial of it, right? It’s not valid.

So, I say, “Oh, I’m really anxious about this.” And somebody immediately comes in— with the best of intentions— and says, “Oh, well, there’s no reason to worry about that. Well, why are you worried about that?” Right? “Oh, nothing’s going to go wrong.” There’s that sort of like…

Robin Hutson  32:37 

“What’s the worst that could happen?” Worst thing to say to an anxious child ever.

Lynn Lyons  32:42 

That’s right. The worst thing to say, or, you know, for kids, like say, say, you know, you and I were both teenage girls, right? And so we say, you know, oh, I’m worried that somebody’s going to make fun of me or I’m worried that I’m not going to fit in, or how about, you know, like, I’m not pretty, and then somebody says, “Oh, you’re the most beautiful girl in the world.”

It doesn’t give you any room to have that discussion to say to that to say to that child, well, that is a hard way to feel. Let’s talk about that. Or I wonder, I wonder how that came about? Or if you’re feeling sad, “Oh, that’s really that’s really disappointing that that happened to you,” or “I can totally understand that. That’s really tough.”

So, there’s that empathy again, right? And that the denial of it or the minimization of it, or it must be something else, you know, outside of yourself, “It’s a full moon,” or “You’re PMSing,” or whatever, right? Or “It’s because you’re a Gemini,” or “It must be because…,” right?

So, all of that comes with the best intentions, you think about it. They’re just trying to make you feel better. But the result of it is that it doesn’t give you an opportunity to really talk about what you’re feeling and make some space for it. And then, of course, most importantly, be able to figure out ,”How can I feel this and move through it?” That’s a really important skill that we want kids to develop and to have.

Robin Hutson  34:05 

I think that the fact that I wasn’t really allowed to feel sadness has played certain things out. I can think of other households where people weren’t allowed to express anger. And the thing is, those feelings still find their outlet.

Lynn Lyons  34:18 

They do.

Robin Hutson  34:18 

And they’re not the best ones. Right? You have to. That’s why I loved you know, really dark, sad music as a teen, right, because I love the Smiths and The Cure and the whole experience because I loved listening to other people express their sadness.

Yeah. And I think of families where I know the children did not express anger back to the parents and say, “How dare you?” And that also comes back to bite, as well.

Lynn Lyons  34:50 

Yeah. And so, you hear somebody say, “Well, I would have never talked to my parents that way.” Right? And they’re usually saying that because somebody was disrespectful or this or that, right? How do you know, if you’re thinking about this as a parent and you’re listening to this, how do you teach your child to express disappointment, frustration, anger in a way that is respectful?

Say you do something that lets your kid down. Say that you do something that your child doesn’t want you to do. Maybe you cross a boundary, you embarrass them, you make an arrangement for them, you do something that they don’t like. How do they let you know that, in a way that’s still respectful, so that you’re not shutting that down?

So, and again, it is not a little tiny sweet spot of perfection here. There is a lot of room for this because when we screw up and when we do things or when we react in a certain way, coming back and doing that post-game analysis and saying to your child: “I am so sorry, I got so angry when I was in that store. And the way I spoke to that clerk, I am going to take full responsibility for that. I should have said, or what would you have said, or what would have been a better way for us to let them know that we are unhappy.”

There are all sorts of opportunities to talk through things with your kids. You don’t have to always do it perfectly the first time. I want that to be so clear to everybody. So, if you “lose it,” that’s not the worst possible thing that could happen as a parent, you just do the post-game analysis so that you can show your kids how you are thinking about your reactions and how you are taking responsibility for them.

Robin Hutson  36:45 

You told me something (since you’re my sister-in-law, for people who don’t know) when I had little kids; you had some really sage parenting advice about when your kids are talking to you and it might not be the biggest thing. You’re still establishing that pattern of listening. So that you’re listening to them and hearing them and that they continue to share with you things as they become increasingly important. Because it’s about how they start communicating their feelings to you when they’re very young and that is your opportunity to start figuring out how you want to respond to that, channeling your own Mr. Rogers, and having that model of validation and listening.

Lynn Lyons  37:37 

And so, say they’re talking to you because they can’t find that Lego piece that went under the couch, and they’re talking about it, and you say: “That’s okay if you can’t find that Lego piece,” or you’re not really listening or: “It’s just a Lego piece.” Well, when you’re three, or when you’re four, that Lego piece is huge. And you want to establish a pattern for when there is something they’re really concerned about, like: “Mom, I just graduated from college and I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.” That’s the 21-year old’s Lego piece under the couch.

And so, you’re establishing that pattern of: “If it’s important to you, I’m listening.” And I’m validating versus saying “Oh, that’s nothing,” because I’m an adult and because with Lego pieces: “You’ll forget about this tomorrow.” So, you’re opening the door for communication about the little things, because the little things to them are big things. And the big things are going to be big things. And so, again, it’s process, not content.

Robin Hutson  38:37 

Yep. As you were saying that, I was thinking of past examples, just even in the last few weeks. We’re going to screw up because we’re parents and there’s no way to not screw up. But if we can always remember to go into each conversation leading with validation, that’s probably the most important thing we can do. It doesn’t require brilliance to say: “That sounds very frustrating.”

Lynn Lyons  39:07 

Yeah. “Yeah, that must be really hard.”

Robin Hutson  39:11 

And if we can only say that, it is really the best we could do.

Lynn Lyons  39:16 

That’s right. And that validation and that empathy is the opposite of the minimization and the denial. “Why do you feel that way? Well, that’s not a big deal. Well, you shouldn’t be feeling that way.” Right. That’s the shutting down.

So again, if you think back to your family’s emotional legacy, who was the validating person for you? Who was the one that said: “Oh, my gosh, your poor broken heart.” Who was the one that said: “Let me help you wipe away your tears and give you a big hug?” For a lot of kids— it wasn’t for me— but for a lot of kids, they talk about the grandparent that had that role. The grandparent, if they had a sweet grandparent, who was in that loving role, that person who always listened to stories, who in your life said to you, “I hear you.”

Who was that person, and how important that was for you, versus perhaps who in your life was the one that said: “You shouldn’t be feeling that way,” or, “We’re not going to feel that way,” or, “I’m not going to allow you to have that emotion,” or, “We aren’t comfortable with that.” So, just think of that a little bit in your life, of who that person was for you.

It may have been a teacher, actually, maybe it was a coach, maybe it was a nice next door neighbor that you hung out with, who knows who it was, but was there some adult in your life that heard you and that validated your emotional life in a way that made it feel okay to have those feelings and didn’t shut them down and didn’t minimize them and didn’t overwhelm you with their feelings.

Robin Hutson  40:55 

So, thinking of parenting younger kids, where there is such a simplicity to their feelings and an ease and validating them, we’re also talking about tweens and teens where they’re really struggling with emotional management. I’m sure every mother of a teen or tween, mother or father, would want to say, “You’re overreacting,” because they probably are. So, how do you handle those types of more powerful outbursts from the kids when, in fact, they are overreacting, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not important.

Lynn Lyons  41:39 

Right? And to say, “You’re overreacting,” they don’t think that they are. They think they’re reacting perfectly in keeping with what’s going on for them. So just change your language a little bit and say, “I can see right now that you are feeling extremely ‘blank’ about this. Is there anything I can do?” Or, “Do you want to take a break from this, and we can talk about it later?” Or, “I know that you are feeling absolutely overwhelmed by these strong feelings. Is there anything I can do to help?” And, “Is there any way that I can help you work through it?” So, what you just did there is you acknowledge the feeling, “I can see that you’re having really big feelings about this,” and then you plant the seed. Now, they may reject it, right? But then you plant the seed, that there may be some action that we’re going to take.

Robin Hutson  42:31 

If they’re overreacting about a boundary that you’re giving them?

Lynn Lyons  42:34 

Right. If they’re overreacting about a boundary, you say, “I understand. I get that you’re feeling this way, but this is the boundary that I’m going to keep. And, you know, you have a right to your feelings about it, but I have a right to this boundary as a parent.”

So, you stand your ground. It is important to them, and it does feel devastating to them, and it does feel like the end of the world to them. And that’s okay that it feels that way. It doesn’t mean that then you change that boundary. That’s one of the things we’ve talked about in terms of not being able to have set boundaries and have control with your child— healthy control – because you’re so afraid of those big emotions, which is probably something that comes from your own emotional legacy.

Robin Hutson  43:16 

When I think about anger, for some reason, anger is one that sticks with me because I think that women have a hard time expressing anger with each other. Spouses sometimes have a really easy time expressing anger with each other, right? But anger is one that some people don’t learn the skills of anger.

via GIPHY

When Sex in the City was a big TV show, and I was so into it, one of the things that I always thought about— of what it was that made people really love the show— is that they saw a group of women friends who were emotionally authentic with each other. And there were great episodes where Carrie and Miranda would yell at each other. Yeah, “How could you do that? You’re betraying who you are!” and, and in reality, not a lot of female friends have the ability to go there in that kind of anger. And I think that as a fantasy, we all loved watching that play out. And so, with anger, I think expressing anger, I’m hoping you will say that that can be taught and learned in that way.

Lynn Lyons  44:23 

Yeah, and some families do it pretty well. I think that if I think about women expressing their anger, I think it’s hard in friendships. And I wonder if those of you listening can think about this. I wonder if it’s easier with siblings. Right? I wonder if you learn as a girl to express your anger. One of the places that you do it early on is with your sisters and your brothers.

And there’s all sorts of gender implications of how anger is expressed and what’s acceptable and what’s not in terms of gender. Growing up, you know, that “boys will be boys” thing that drives me crazy is that we give permission for boys to just express their anger through violence and hurting each other, and we say, oh, “Boys will be boys.”

And what happens when a girl gets very angry and how do we respond differently to that? And I think modeling that. I think you’re so right about that, rather than the ability to let a friend know that you are angry with them. You know, we all think about that. That is a really tricky thing for us to do with our friendships culturally. Isn’t it?

Robin Hutson  45:27 

It is. Yeah, I have a very vivid memory of one of my best friends. I knew she was mad at me. Yeah, she finally told me why she was mad at me. And it took her so much courage. I just remember just saying to her, “I know that was so hard. Thank you, thank you so much. Thank you for loving me so much that you were so willing to be uncomfortable, and that you felt the courage to do it. She showed that anger to be able to express that to me. I actually felt really loved in that moment. And I felt so apologetic of why I had made her upset. And it was just, it was such a great thing. But you know, we were in our 40s, and we’d known each other 20 years.

Lynn Lyons  46:11 

I had a very close friend. And we had a situation we were in our early 20s, actually just out of college. And there was just a big misunderstanding, sort of, of where we were and what was going on in both of our lives. And we couldn’t talk about it. And it led to just such a chasm between us, which ultimately has been resolved.

But it’s one of the great sort of regrets, and when I think back on it with great sadness, that we weren’t really able to talk about it. We weren’t really able to work through it. And I think we could talk about it now. I know we could, but it was it was the inability for both of us to talk about what was going on how we both felt abandoned by the other during that time, and it really is a great sadness for me when I think about it.

Robin Hutson  47:02 

I think that’s so true. I think that actually a lot of friendships just fade because of the inability to articulate our feelings of anger or abandonment. You have to care enough to get uncomfortable.

Lynn Lyons  47:14 

That’s right.

Robin Hutson  47:15 

If you don’t care enough to get uncomfortable, then maybe it isn’t worth it. Right. Like you have to fight for those friendships.

And I think coming back to our families and our partners and our kids, I think it’s just a cool idea for two parents to say, “These are the emotions that are really hard for us, let’s support each other and make sure that we’re really able to find a space for them in how we’re how we’re parenting.” And, with maybe each other. It’s different.

Maybe one’s better with sadness, and the other is better with anger. And then, you know, you have so much experience of this maybe there really is one parent who’s fueling the worry and the other parent isn’t. Right? That’s a whole other show.

Lynn Lyons  48:01 

Yeah, that’s a whole other show. We can certainly talk about that. But I think that what you’re saying is it is a nice sort of point to put on this is that it’s about recognizing. What are the emotions that are difficult for you? What was hard for you and your family? What did you learn or what you didn’t learn? And then how can you consciously work on interrupting the patterns, interrupting the legacies so that your kids are better equipped to express themselves to the people that they love, be it their friends, their partners, their children, when they’re your grandchildren? That is just such a wonderful gift.

And it’s not about over talking? It’s not about psychobabble. It’s not about being mushy and all that kind of stuff that sometimes people go “Oh god, this is what therapists talk about.”

I’m talking about concretely saying this is how we handle anger. This is how we talk about sadness. How can I make room for it? How can I teach you that it’s okay for you to feel these things? That’s what I think we want to pay attention to.

Robin Hutson  49:06 

It’s great. Everyone should watch your Mr. Rogers video on your website.

Lynn Lyons  49:11 

Oh, thanks. I love Mr. Rogers.

Robin Hutson  49:13 

Who doesn’t?

Lynn Lyons  49:14 

I know. All right, well, that was a nice sort of big tackle of a topic discussion. But it’s such an important one. I’m sure we’ll come back to it again. And again, this idea of emotional management and how do we teach our kids so that we can send them off to the world— into the world— and have healthy connected relationships, so I don’t know what to say. (Laughs)

Robin Hutson  49:43 

It’s been real. See ya later. (Laughing)

Lynn Lyons  49:48 

So, we will be back as just like Mr. Rogers used to say, right, You’ll have things you’ll want to talk about, or you’ll have things we’ll want to talk about.

Robin Hutson  49:58 

Lawsuit. Copyright infringement.

Lynn Lyons  50:00 

Okay.

Robin Hutson  50:01 

You can’t do that.

Lynn Lyons  50:03 

Okay, so thanks for joining us. And we will be back. We will always have things to talk about in terms of emotional management. And remember, there is not one perfect way to parent. There is a great big, huge sweet spot that starts with validation and love and connection. And so, it’s been great spending time with you, Robin.

Robin Hutson

Always fascinating and thought provoking. So, thank you, Lynn.

Lynn Lyons

Yeah, we’ll see you again soon.

Robin Hutson  50:30 

Bye.

Lynn Lyons  50:30 

Bye.

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