Updated: Jan 19, 2021
"Recently, my 4-year-old daughter has been coming up to me and giving kisses when I look frustrated. I am more frustrated juggling work and childcare during quarantine. When she gives kisses, she asks 'will kiss keep the angry away?' Have I been making her manage my emotions? Or am I overreacting and this is a 4 yo trying to be empathetic? I accept the kisses and let her know that it was very nice, but I struggle with what to say next. How do I explain to him that my anger is not his problem?"
I think it is very wonderful and sweet when children are empathetic and giving to their parents. A neurotypical 4-year-old is able to guess someone's emotion by observing their facial features, body languages, and behaviours at a very simplistic level. They have yet developed the ability to comprehend and correctly guess the reasoning behind the emotions they are observing. I imagine that, in this case, the child is experiencing emotional empathy with her mother: she is directly feeling the emotion her mother is feeling.
They can feel it, but can't understand it.
When a parent is having a negative emotion and the kid is sharing that emotion by proxy, it does not matter if this emotion is their problem or not. However, does this mean we should not show negative emotions around our children?
Showing a full range of emotions around our children is very beneficial for the child's social-emotional development, as long as these emotions are expressed safely and appropriately. Situations, where we are mad, frustrated, or anxious, are the perfect opportunity to model proper expressions and management of emotions, so our children can learn by observing.
For example, when we notice our stress, we can describe in detail what is happening: "oh my shoulder is really tense and I notice I am frowning. I guess I must be feeling stressed." Then, describe your self-regulation solution: "I am going to take a small break, close my eyes, and breathe". Most importantly, resolution: "Ah I feel much better now! What do you think?"
If children noticed our negative emotions first, acknowledge their observation and concern and describe what is happening to them. "Thank you for noticing. Does mommy's stress worry you? When mommy is feeling stressed, I can see that you feel stress too. Sorry I worried you." Then, use this opportunity to co-regulate and bond. "Let's go cuddle to make each other feel better." "Our hugs make me feel much better now. How about you?"
How Full is Your Bucket is a great book to give parents and children the language around stress, emotional energy, and empathy.