Is it bad to vent to my children? Here’s what the experts say

Here's what parents should keep in mind when gossiping or venting to children.  (Image: Getty Images; illustrated by Liliana Penagos)

Here’s what parents should keep in mind when gossiping or venting to children. (Image: Getty Images; illustrated by Liliana Penagos)

Recently, I repeated some popular local gossip I had heard in front of my children. I didn’t think much of it – it wasn’t something I particularly cared about, but I kept hearing about it from others and blurted it out mindlessly when the topic came up in our house. Much to my surprise, one of my sons took that information to his peers and passed it on as gospel truth. This resulted in a confrontation with another adult in which I had to — and did have to — apologize for helping to spread the lie within our community. This has led me to think more carefully about how and what I share in front of my young children. For example, is it okay to complain about a teacher or a grandparent in front of our children?

For some families, the answer is yes, says Tasha Brown. As a clinical psychologist who works with children and families, she always lets parents know that every family system works differently. Some families are “venters” and verbally process frustrations, while others are internal processors. Neither of these approaches are wrong, just different. If you are a family of word processors, you will need to teach your children how to navigate different topics and provide them with a framework to understand “family affairs”.

What kind of ventilation can small children handle?

For parents like me, who are prone to idle chatter as we go about our routines, it can be difficult for young children – my four children range in age from 4 to 11 – to figure out what and when to talk about with the others. “Kids are very literal,” says Brown, host of Notes of a child psychologist podcasts. “They don’t have the ability, that filter, that says, ‘Oh, maybe I shouldn’t tell the doctor that my mother hates the teacher.’ It’s not there yet and it’s not harmful. They just don’t understand yet.

Brown shares the example of a child with a noisy pet that she asked to remove from the room during telehealth sessions. Her request was practical, but the little girl assumed she “hated” their pet. “They’re still learning,” she explains. “These are social nuances that we take for granted as adults.”

For elementary school kids and younger, families who like to emotionally spew their frustrations out at home also need to be very careful, Brown says. If you say your child has the worst teacher in history, there’s a good chance they’ll believe it’s true and repeat it in school. So it’s important clearly indicate what are the expectations for children who are still developing judgment skills.

“Sometimes when we get really angry, we can say, ‘I’m angry so this is how I express it’ or ‘I’m really frustrated so this is why it’s coming and it’s coming out,'” says Brown. “Make that connection between feeling and behavior. Then share how the issue will be fixed or rectified so they know it’s this full circle thing.

This makes children understand that it’s not just about rambling, but working through a problem. It can be challenging to help young children understand that some things are private conversations that don’t leave the house. We teach children to be honest and not to tell lies, and telling them not to repeat something may seem a bit disingenuous to some children. However, letting children know that keeping some feelings private is one way to prevent hurt feelings helps them make sense of them. It is not a lie; it’s just private.

What if you’re just digressing rather than looking for solutions? Say it like this. Brown gives the example of a grandparent who ignores a parent’s wishes. We can say, “Hey, I was mad at grandma because I told her I didn’t want you to eat pizza since we were already planning to go out, but she still took you out for pizza. And sometimes when I’m frustrated, I scream it out. It doesn’t mean I don’t love Grandma. I was just frustrated. Emphasize to your child that expressing frustration doesn’t change the relationship with Grandma (or whoever it is that vented on you). Much like a volcano, the release of a little steam often stops a full-blown explosion. Using a concrete example that children understand helps them connect adults’ actions to their own feelings.

What can you talk about with older kids?

As kids get older — think middle school and beyond — it’s important to welcome them into the family business in a more mature way, says Michelle Icard, author of Fourteen age fourteen speeches AND Middle school makeover. We don’t need to treat tweens and tweens the same way we treat younger children, she notes.

“As children get older, parents can and should talk to their children at greater levels of maturity, which can include a deeper insight into family dynamics,” Icard says. “This follows the natural course of a developing parent-child relationship. Parents will need to gauge when their child is ready for this type of conversation and when they should back off and wait.”

If your older child hears you talking about grandpa, one clue that he’s ready to handle adult conversations may be his reaction to your words. “If your child says, ‘You were being crazy with Grandpa at lunch,’ it’s not helpful to deny it,” Icard says. “You’ll be sending your child confusing signals and may create distrust in how he perceives you.” Instead, talking openly about how you handle harsh emotions builds older children’s emotional intelligence.

What should parents pay attention to when venting?

Teaching your kids how to process things by engaging them in adult conversations is one thing, but using them as a sounding board is totally another, Icard says. “If you focus on how you’re handling the difficulty of an experience or relationship, that will help your child learn how to cope through your example,” she says.

But sharing traumatic events as a cautionary tale or regularly talking about raw emotions isn’t all that helpful. This can also stress older children or cause them to worry too much about your well-being. “Answer your child’s questions directly, but only with the level of detail you would share with a co-worker or neighbor, and not a best friend,” Icard adds. “Children take on the worries and stress of their parents, so be aware of the impact your stories might have.

Even if you’re a word processor, it’s also important to understand that some kids will just need you to keep tabs on it, adds Brown. “If you notice that there are certain things about your children that may indicate that perhaps it is better to monitor how we have been in front of them, really take them into consideration as well because children will react to different things in different ways.”

Ultimately, Brown says, it’s about keeping an eye on your child AND the situation. “Just make sure you keep it appropriate for development. Don’t put your child in a position where he has to process something in an adult way that he isn’t ready for.

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