In many ways, vulnerability is an unavoidable part of parenthood. When you become a parent, it’s normal to come face to face with your flaws and weaknesses on a regular basis. As important as vulnerability is, though, many dads struggle to intentionally express it with their kids — largely for reasons that trace back to old notions of masculinity. If that sounds like you — maybe you don’t want to let your kids down or you simply feel awkward sharing your emotions — it can be tough to display sensitivity in your relationships.
Michael Addis, professor of psychology at Clark University and author of Invisible Men: Men’s Inner Lives and the Consequences of Silence, says it’s normal to feel a little weird when you break social norms and stereotypes about your own vulnerability. But making simple changes to your communication style — and even just accepting the awkwardness — can make a significant, positive difference in your family dynamics.
Looking for ways to demonstrate vulnerability with your kids, without feeling awkward? Here are eight expert-recommended places to start.
1. Share Life Stories
Sharing life stories with your kids can be a great way to connect more deeply with them. Not only will reaching back into your personal memories give you practice with vulnerability; the process of sharing your life experiences and the surrounding lessons and emotions can also empower your kids.
“There’s research that shows kids from families where stories from the past are shared are more resilient, more confident, and better problem solvers, as they use the pride in overcoming challenges from the past as fuel to do in the future,” says Marriage and family therapist Carrie Krawiec.
On the flip side, if you choose not to shed light on your past, you risk creating a family climate of shame and uncertainty. So start sharing your stories and memories while your kids are young, and you’ll establish a more intimate relationship and healthy attachment.
2. Say “I don’t know”
If you find yourself fixated on not disappointing family members who look up to you, you’re not alone. Sam Nabil, owner and therapist at Naya Clinics, says many fathers fall into the “superman” trap, where they find themselves pretending to be confident and capable in any and all situations, even if they are completely out of their depths.
Pay attention to situations where you’re tempted not to reveal weakness. Maybe your kids ask you to play a game or sport you’re not good at. Maybe you’re not sure how to fix your toddler’s tricycle. Either way, Nabil says it can be powerful to admit you’re not perfect.
“Simply answering a question by saying ‘I don’t know’ or responding to a request for help by saying ‘I actually don’t know how to do this’ is a great way to be vulnerable with your children, as well as modeling good behavior for them,” he says.
After you admit you’re not sure how to do something, take time to show you care by finding the answer — and make it a bonding opportunity by involving your kid in the process.
3. Say “I’m sorry”
No one likes to come off like they are in the wrong — no one more so than a father in front of his children. But failing to admit you’re wrong can have a negative impact on your family. “Not only is this behavior counterproductive in general, it is also teaching the children all sorts of wrong lessons, and moving the father very far away from being able to empathically and vulnerable communicate,” says Nabil.
Ironically, this attitude will only put more pressure on you to keep up the “perfect dad” act, which creates more distance from your kids. And when you’re not able to admit you’re in the wrong, you’ll be more likely to shift blame onto others, which teaches your kids to do the same.
A better approach, Nabil says, would be to admit responsibility to your children, and make an effort to do better next time. Start by saying, “Hey buddy, I know I promised you to make it to your game, and I didn’t. I’m very sorry. I lost track of time at work. I’ll try my best to do better this time.”
4. Be Open About Your Emotions
Another common practice among dads, according to Nabil: hiding negative feelings from your kids in order to “protect them.” But all that ends up doing is confusing your family, who will clearly see you’re distraught without knowing why.
If you display disappointment, sadness, or anger without openly talking about it, you run the risk of your children assuming they did something wrong. So instead of protecting them from their negative feelings, you could actually make your kids feel guilty for something they didn’t do.
A much better approach is to be vulnerable and share your hurt and pain with your children — albeit in a way that doesn’t scare them. For example, you could admit, “I’m very disappointed because I worked very hard last year, and still did not get the promotion I was hoping for” or even, “I’m frustrated because I had an argument with your mom.”
Sharing how you feel helps the kids connect with you (because they understand disappointment and anger, too), all the while allowing you to model behavior that encourages them to open up about their own feelings.
5. Observe How Your Kids Are Feeling
Connecting emotionally with your kids can be as simple as being in tune with their emotions, according to clinical psychologist Lauren Cook. Is your preschooler angry about bedtime or your older child upset about a consequence for behavior? Try saying, “It looks like you’re frustrated right now, buddy” and asking how you can help.
“Just the act of a father acknowledging how his child feels is powerful,” Cook says. “Rather than trying to change the emotion the child is expressing, the father is showing that he is willing to roll with it and he isn’t threatened or upset by it.”
To go the extra mile, Cook recommends matching the inflection and tone of your voice to match the child’s emotion. “This is a powerful example to the child that shows how profoundly their parent identifies and understands their feelings,” she says.
6. Say these words: “I understand what you’re going through”
Empathy is an important way to connect with your kids. When you identify with their feelings, they’ll feel more connected to you and less ashamed or isolated in their own experiences. While a tearful, lovey-dovey conversation might seem off putting, you can exude empathy simply by telling your kid you understand what they’re experiencing.
Clinical psychologist Sheva Assar says simple phrases such as “I understand what you’re going through” or “I’ve also experienced this, and I know you can get through it” can help you shape your child’s experience, while also sharing more of yourself and your experience.
If your child is upset, you may not even have to say anything — Assar says simply sitting nearby and paying attention can make way for greater intimacy.
7. Ask for Help Publicly
Society reinforces the message that asking for help is a sign of weakness. But refusing to seek support from others teaches your kids that they should deal with their problems alone, too. So instead of white-knuckling your way through problems, Addis suggests demonstrating to your kids that it’s okay to ask for support.
Maybe it’s as simple as asking your partner for help with a household project you’re overwhelmed by. Maybe you reach out to a friend or therapist if you’re struggling with stress or anxiety. In reaching out for help, you’ll get the support you need to function well, along with showing your kids that dads need help, love, and support like anyone else does.
8. Accept the Awkwardness
At times, you can’t avoid the awkwardness of showing weakness or sharing your emotions. That’s why Addis recommends a simple perspective shift: Simply accept the awkward feelings rather than seeing them as a sign that something’s wrong. (Remember: This same clumsy feeling probably commonly arises whenever you try something new).
While the early stages of opening up with your kids might feel strange, keep in mind you’re moving in a positive direction. For every awkward moment, you’re well on your way to a deeper, more rewarding relationship with your kids.