When you’re in a bad mood, you know what they think? They think it has something to do with them.
Even though you know the truth, and you might even try to explain it to them, they don’t actually believe it has something to do with all the stress that is on your shoulders. Or that coworker whose stupidity you had to put up with all day. Or your boss’s short temper and unrealistic expectations. Those are all complex emotional issues that are hard for a young kid to understand, especially when they are abstracted from their own lived experience.
In his memoir, Bruce Springsteen writes about how his father’s mood and emotions affected him as a child. “I knew something was being communicated,” he writes…
As a boy I just figured it was the way men were, distant, uncommunicative, busy within the currents of the grown-up world. As a child you don’t question your parents’ choices. You accept them. They are justified by the godlike status of parenthood. If you aren’t spoken to, you’re not worth the time. If you’re not greeted with love and affection, you haven’t earned it. If you’re ignored, you don’t exist…I sensed what was being said: I was an intruder, a stranger, a competitor in our home and a fearful disappointment. My heart broke and I crumpled.
It breaks your heart. We can grant that his parents probably had it hard, that they were struggling, that their parents were flawed, that their childhoods weren’t what they would have chosen. But still, they—like all people do—got to choose how they acted around their kids. They chose to pass along the negativity and the pain. They chose to make the same mistakes their parents made. Or, if we’re being charitable, they allowed the toxic negative patterns of their past to overwhelm their capacity to choose correctly with their children in the present.
We’re all making these choices and allowances every day. Our moods and choices and the examples we set are affecting our kids always, changing how they see the world and how they see themselves. It’s making them feel better or worse, worthwhile or worthless, safe or vulnerable. And in the process, we’re creating a pattern for them that becomes hard not to follow—for better or for worse.
Our kids are either suffering or benefiting from our moods and emotions. Which is why we have to constantly remind ourselves what the French philosopher Voltaire said, “The most important decision you make is to be in a good mood.”