On the bottom rung are the children. They have a certain amount of responsibility and freedom, based on their developmental stages. But they're the children. They shouldn't have to worry about food, shelter, clothing, or other adult responsibilities.
On the rung above are the parents. Their job is to provide the physical food, shelter, clothing--and also the emotional nurture, safety, and provision--that the children need.
The higher rungs of the ladder can represent other resources that support the parents and family: extended family, friends, church, health care, community services, etc.
When families get into stressful situations, especially long-term stresses, the structure can get a little (or a lot) scrambled. I see a lot of kids who have had to become little adults in order to cope with the mess in their family structure.
Some have to walk on eggshells around one or both parents, because they've learned that small infractions will set off a nuclear reaction. They feel responsible if Mom is sad, or Dad is angry. They think it's all their fault. They live with a lot of anxiety that really shouldn't belong to them.
I think it's great to be honest with our kids about what's going on in the family, and our emotions. "I'm really sad right now" or, "I'm so angry about what happened," or, "I'm worried because I lost my job."
But then we need to let them know that we're taking responsibility, as we go up the ladder for whatever resources we need. Either we deal with it ourselves: "I just need to cry a little bit, and that will help me feel better;" or with help from other adults: "I'm going to talk to my counselor about it this week," or with help from the very top of the ladder: "I don't know what's going to happen, but we're praying about it and we trust God to help us."
Here are some simple steps toward being responsible for our own emotions:
- I need to honestly identify what I am feeling. Sad? Glad? Mad? Scared? (Sometimes a feeling chart is a great thing, especially if your children are small. You can have one for yourself and every member of the family, to communicate emotions. FreePrintableBehaviorCharts.com has every chart imaginable.)
- I need to look past the present frustration to identify any underlying issues. I can be strong and courageous, and tell myself the truth. Is there something deeper going on that I should be dealing with?
- I need to decide if I can deal with this on my own. If I can't deal with it on my own, I can look up the ladder for help. An adult family member? A friend? A pastor? A support group? A counselor? A doctor?
When we take responsibility for our own emotions, great things happen. First, our children don't have to bear adult burdens. Second, we model for our kids how to get help in the difficult situations they'll no doubt come up against someday.
And best of all, we actually have the potential to get the help we need, when we keep looking up.