So many parents of young kids today were taught to handle fear, sadness, or adversity by being tough and holding back emotions. Our founder Rita Ho-Bezzola talks about why she stopped teaching her kids to be “brave” and her approach to supporting these feelings in a more constructive way.
As someone who grew up in the 80s, we were all taught to be “brave” from the time we were toddlers. We were considered “good kids” or “easy kids” if we figured out how to hold back tears and act “brave”.
For some reason, holding back tears has been long equated to being “brave,” and it has been the quintessential quality every kid aimed to master, especially when things got tough, or when they were hurt or scared. We looked up to people who were “brave” (case in point, the US National Anthem). We read stories that taught us how to be brave. We often catch ourselves complimenting our children for not crying when they fall and get an ouchie. We celebrate bravery as if our lives depend on it.
We even had (and still have) things like “bravery badges” to celebrate how we acted tough and held it together when faced with adversity.
Why are we, as a society, celebrating and encouraging one to hold back their tears? And why is it so important for us to be “brave”? Does the presence of tears amidst adversity cancel out a person’s courageous act?
One reason why we are so uncomfortable with crying and tears could be cultural. We live in a society that values stoicism — the ability to endure pain or hardship without complaining or showing emotions. This is especially true for men, who are often seen as “weak” if they show any emotion besides anger.
Another reason could be that we simply don’t know how to deal with other people’s emotions, so we try to get them to stop crying as quickly as possible. This is especially true for parents, who often feel helpless when their child is crying.
When we get hurt, or when we are scared, our body’s natural reaction is to release a flood of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones prepare us for “fight-or-flight” mode by increasing our heart rate and blood pressure. They also signal our tear glands to produce tears.
Tears are not just water.
They also contain stress hormones like cortisol. When these stress hormones mix with the tears and get released, it has a calming effect on the body, which helps to lower our heart rate and blood pressure. In other words, crying is the body’s way of releasing stress and tension, and it is crucial for maintaining our physical and mental health.
Crying has also been shown to improve our mood. A study done in Japan showed that people who cried had a significant decrease in the levels of cortisol and prolactin (another stress hormone) in their bodies, and they also reported feeling more positive emotions like relief, happiness, and warmth.
Now let’s look at the bravery bit. Merriam-Webster describes bravery as “the quality or state of having courage: the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous.”
But what isn’t mentioned is that bravery often comes at a cost.
It takes a toll on our mind and body when we try to be brave and hold everything in.
Think about the last time you were in a stressful or difficult situation. Maybe you had to give a presentation at work or speak up in front of a group of people. You may have experienced a racing heart, sweaty palms, or your mind going blank. This is our body’s natural reaction to stress and it is called the “fight or flight” response.
When we try to be “brave” and suppress these reactions, we are causing more harm than good.
When we teach our children to hold it together, we are inadvertently teaching them to ignore their natural reactions and emotions. We are teaching them to suppress their feelings. We are teaching them that it is not okay to feel scared or sad or angry. We are teaching them to be tough and hold everything in, even when it might be better for them to let it out, to cry. When we encourage our kids to be “brave,” what we really telling them is to face their fears head on because that is how we were taught — that is how WE became “brave”.
And this quality, of course, has its merits. Being brave can help us overcome our fears and it does give us a sense of accomplishment. But being brave also comes with a price: repressed emotions.
Repressive coping is when we bottle up our emotions in an attempt to deal with them. It is a form of avoidance where we would rather not face our emotions head-on. We would rather push them away and hope that they will go away on their own.
But guess what? They don’t. In fact, studies have shown that repressive coping actually makes our emotional problems worse in the long run. When we bottle up our emotions, we are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. We are also more likely to develop physical health problems because of the stress that is caused by repressing our emotions.
So what can we do instead of teaching our children to be “brave”?
We can teach them how to cope with their emotions instead of repressing them. We can teach them that it is okay to feel scared or sad or angry. We can teach them that it is okay to cry. We can teach them how to deal with their emotions in a constructive way, such as by talking about them, writing about them, or drawing them out.
As a mom to two little girls, what I want to teach them is how to process and cope with tough situations — how to prepare and muster up the courage to go through something scary and outside of their comfort zone. I want to teach them that it’s okay to feel scared and sad and angry. I want them to know that they can come to me with anything – no matter how big or small – and I will always be there for them.
When we give our children tools and strategies for coping with the stress and fear in their lives, we are helping them build emotional resilience. It is the ability to “bounce back” from difficult experiences, and it is a crucial life skill that will serve them well into adulthood.
So, the next time your child is in a tough situation, try these few things instead:
- Acknowledge their feelings: Let them know that it’s okay to feel scared/sad/angry and that you are there for them. It’s normal to have a physical reaction when we are in a difficult or stressful situation. Just because our heart races and our palms sweat doesn’t mean we are weak.
- Help them prepare: If they have a presentation at school, an upcoming doctor’s visit or have to do something outside of their comfort zone, help them prepare by doing a practice run or role-playing.
- Bravery doesn’t mean we have to hold everything in, even when it hurts. It means we are strong enough to show our emotions and ask for help when we need it.
- Crying is not a sign of weakness. Crying is coping.
- Teach them that they can ask for help. There is nothing wrong with admitting that we need help. Asking for help shows strength, not weakness.
I hope this will give all parents and caretakers out there more ideas and strategies when your child is having a tough time. Instead of telling them to be brave, try comforting them and giving them a hug. And if you need to cry, go ahead and let the tears flow — it’s good for you!
You got this!
Rita Ho-Bezzola is the founder and chief wheel spinner at Piper + Enza.