When the world is turned upside down and it feels like the sky is falling, many parents may resort to Pollyannaism or try to sugarcoat a lousy situation in an attempt to protect their kids from life’s harsh realities.
New research (Waters et al., 2020) suggests that overtly suppressing parental emotions in an attempt to protect children from emotional distress may backfire. “[Our] findings reveal that parents’ emotion regulation efforts impact parent-child stress transmission and compromise interaction quality,” the authors said. These findings were published on April 23 in the Journal of Family Psychology.
Sara Waters of Washington State University led this research and is the paper’s first author. She co-authored this paper with Tessa West of New York University, Helena Rose Karnilowicz of the University of California, Berkeley, and Wendy Berry Mendes of the University of California, San Francisco.
This study’s goal was to examine if parents’ acute stress responses are transmitted to their 7- to 11-year-old children on a physiological level and if parental emotional suppression affects the behavioral dynamics between parent-child dyads. The cohort (N = 214) included 107 parents and their school-age children (n = 107).
Although this research was conducted before the coronavirus pandemic, the findings may be useful for parents struggling with their emotion regulation or an inability to “pretend everything’s hunky-dory” during the COVID-19 crisis. “The more out of control parents feel, and during a global pandemic that feeling is likely exacerbated, the stronger they have an impulse to reassure their kids that everything is OK,” the authors explain in a news release.
“Research shows that it’s more comforting for kids to have their feelings honored than just being told ‘It’s going to be fine,'” Waters added. “For instance, if a child tells their parents it sucks not to see their friends anymore, don’t immediately try to fix that problem. Just sit with them and give them a chance to regulate those emotions on their own.”
On average, most of the children in this study could pick up on their parents’ anxiety, especially when moms tried to suppress a negative emotional state. “We show that the [stress] response happens under the skin,” Waters said. “Our research shows what happens when we tell kids that we’re fine when we’re not. [Parental emotional suppression] comes from a good place; we don’t want to stress them out. But we may be doing the exact opposite.”
Notably, the researchers also found that parents who were instructed to hide their emotions from their child after a stressful event tended to be less warm and less engaged with their children than parents in a control group that didn’t suppress their feelings.
“That makes sense for a parent distracted by trying to keep their stress hidden, but the kids very quickly changed their behavior to match the parent,” Waters said. “So if you’re stressed and just say, ‘Oh, I’m fine,’ that only makes you less available to your child. We found that the kids picked up on that and reciprocated, which becomes a self-fulfilling dynamic.”
The double whammy for kids whose parents tried to pretend everything was OK instead of fessing up that “everything is not fine,” was that their parents’ emotional suppression created a sense of emotional disconnection and also triggered a stress response in their kid’s sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
Over the past few weeks of self-quarantine, whenever my daughter expresses negative emotions or distress related to shelter-in-place orders and having to video conference on Zoom for school, instead of trying to convince her to look on the bright side or feel differently than she feels, I just nod my head and say: “Yup. This is a really challenging time. I’d feel the same way if I was in your shoes.”
The latest research (2020) suggests that putting on a “happy face” and trying to fool your kids into believing that everything’s A-OK when it’s not, may increase both physiological stress and psychological disconnection.
That said, there is a caveat: Because anxiety is so contagious, finding natural ways to calm your nervous system (e.g., diaphragmatic breathing with longer exhalations) and making efforts to maintain mood homeostasis by doing everyday activities that help reduce stress (e.g., walking in nature) and boost your mood can create an upward spiral for parent-child dyads.
In closing, Sara Waters doesn’t want her research on the pitfalls of suppressing stress to inadvertently cause parents more stress. “We don’t want this to be another thing that parents stress out about when raising their kids,” she said. “It’s not that you are screwing up—but honor your feelings and your child’s feelings. Be brave enough to look at it. Kids will work their way through it; they’re good at it. Giving yourself permission to feel opens up your mind to more and better problem-solving. It’s a good thing.”