Dear Hand in Hand,
There has been a lot going on in my life at the moment that I'm finding hard to deal with. I'm pregnant, not sleeping and my father recently passed away. Now I am worried that I have passed my own worry on to my three-year-old. I often catch her looking at me, and she keeps asking if i'm ok. I'm happy that she's empathetic, but I don't want my sadness to affect her. What should I do?
Parenting can be hard when things are fine, and terribly tough when they aren't. Our little ones are made to connect with us, and they attune to how we are feeling, that's for sure. That said, her worries, as you rightly point out, are not her worries, and at three, she's looking to depend on you anchoring her through her big feelings. With this in mind, there are three ways to lighten the tone, and hopefully, soothe and heal yourself in the process. You can feel better modeling these good emotional coping skills that she will absorb.
Spend Time One-on-One to Soothe and De-stress
You are pregnant and that brings its own changes, now and when the baby comes. If you can establish some regular one-on-one time you'll provide some much-needed comfort and security when your child can revel in your company. This will be good for her when the disruptions of a new baby arriving occur. We call this Special Time, and we set it up so that for a set amount of time you put your child in charge of her play while you follow her. Try doing this for 10 minutes and promise yourself that during that time you will focus on her and what you love so much about her. If you can set your worries aside for just those 10 minutes, you'll share with her your obvious pleasure in her game, while giving yourself a mental break at the same time.
Turn Worries to Play
By all means, mention to your daughter that you have things making you sad or a little worried right now, and assure her that you know you will be ok and that she doesn't need to worry for you-you'll both be ok. We can't shield our children from everything life throws up for us, and as you've noticed they pick up on our feelings no matter how hard we try to hide them. But if she persists, you might be able to lighten things up with a little play. If she asks if you are ok, you can respond with a playful answer.
Adopt the voice of a TV weather reporter: “Let's check in on the feelings monitor! On the map we see signs of worry floating away. And if we scan mom, we see that fun and giggle are on the horizon.” You can use this as a way to break the tension and lead into some fun chase or snuggle times that relieve the stress for both of you. Or you might play something like, “Chase the worry away,” where you try and catch the worries floating around and shut them in the cupboard, or eat them!
If your child responds well to this, you'll hear it in her giggles or laughter, and you may find that because this play comforts her fears, she'll ask how you are often in order to play. This play response is connecting and a way to partner with your child through stressful times in a healthy way.
Pass the Worry On
It helps to have someone else to work through your worries with. Although your partner or a parent or good friend are options, it's important to note that they may listen to you with the intent of offering suggestions or solutions. There is nothing wrong with this, but we see by far the more effective route to healing and resolution is when you have someone who can listen to you as you work things through, by speaking about your feelings, venting, crying even yelling things you wish you could yell but can't in everyday life for a set time. This works much like the Special Time you give your child, only this time you have the empathy from a parent supporting you. There is nothing quite like this method of working through upsets and lightening the mental load, and it means you return to your family with less of that heavy weight of worry. You can read more about it in How Is Listening Time More Beneficial Than Talking with Mom Friends?
Used together, these three tools will help lighten the mood in your house through these difficult times. Daily times of fun and play with some opportunities to relieve your strain will mean that you can worry less about worrying your daughter.
Find out more about Hand in Hand's practical powerful parenting approach in the book Listen: Five Simple Tools To Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges.