My 6-year-old son is normally the happiest, most high-energy kid around. Then, in mid-October, something shifted.
He was morose at pickups and unwilling to share anything about his day at school. The moping carried on for weeks.
I contacted his teacher, concerned something was happening in the classroom. Maybe he was being bullied or struggling with some learning concepts. The teacher said she had seen no evidence of those issues.
Instead, he was picking up stress from his parents.
I finally realized this one November morning. My son looked downright depressed. I knelt down, meeting his eyes. I gently asked if he wanted to talk.
“It’s my zoo,” he replied.
While only 6, he has a keen interest in running a zoo and animal sanctuary when he’s older. Animals are his passion. He even requests time to “work on his life plan” as he calls it. This involves detailed sketches of his future zoo, along with notes about what the animals will require for care.
“What about your zoo?” I asked.
“I’m worried no one will come. I’ll build a great zoo, and I’ll work really hard, but what if no matter what’s there, I can’t get any visitors?”
This sentence struck me hard. It even broke my heart a bit because I’d heard it before. Not about a zoo, but about a store.
Our kids feel what we feel
This past May, my wife founded an online store dedicated to non-food vegan goods. Yet, like any new business, the store came with many challenges. At one point, while our kids were watching TV, Rachel told me she was frustrated.
“I’m worried that no one will come,” she’d said. “I built a great store, and we work really hard, but how do we get more visitors?”
Inadvertently, we’d transferred our stress about starting a new business to our son with him internalizing it as his own worries about a future career.
This is not surprising, according to Dr. Shannon Renner, a school psychologist at Pine Bush School in upstate New York.
“Kids are sponges, they have big eyes and big ears that are always watching and listening,” she said in an interview.
But hiding our adult emotions in front of our children isn’t the answer.
“The most concrete plan a parent can have is to simply name and explain their emotions or the events, in an age-appropriate way, and model how they are going to problem solve when a child witnesses the stress,” Renner said. “For example, ‘My plan is not working, but I am not going to give up. I am going to try and come up with a new plan to get friends to visit my store.’”
With this advice in mind, my wife and I talked to our son together. We told him we realized he was concerned about our store and that it’s OK to feel stressed at times. With that, the three of us came up with a plan focused on his needs — his zoo.
Explain, plan and beat stress as a family
We found ourselves in a similar situation recently.
This time, my son was excited about something he’d planned. He’d been writing long lists and wanted us to help him make a countdown. It turned out he’d planned to turn our backyard into a pond. When we gently told him this wasn’t going to happen, he got very upset.
Yet, we again realized he’d picked up on our stress.
We had recently lost the childcare provider for our 3-year-old daughter, flipping our lives in an unexpected direction. So, again, we had to discuss our feelings, our emotions, and our plans. We discussed needing to pivot when one set of expectations didn’t work out. And now, just as we were working out a plan about childcare, we worked with our son on coming up with a plan for something else to get excited about.
It’s not easy. Kids leech the emotions around them. And those stresses will keep coming. Be ready to share what you’re feeling and devise a plan with your kids. Hiding stress won’t help, but naming it might.