VANCOUVER, Wash. — Some parents attempt to hide their true emotions when things are going bad, but this may be doing more harm than good. A study finds kids can spot when their parents are under stress, especially with families spending more time together due to COVID-19.
According to Washington State University researchers, parents often signal their suppressed emotions to their children, which can be harmful for the youngsters. Assistant professor Sara Waters and her colleagues analyzed interactions between 107 parents and their children, who were between the ages of seven and 11. Their findings reveal children experience a physical reaction to their parent’s hidden emotions.
“We show that the response happens under the skin,” Waters says in a university release. “It shows what happens when we tell kids that we’re fine when we’re not. It comes from a good place; we don’t want to stress them out. But we may be doing the exact opposite.”
It’s OK to not be OK
The study asks parents and kids the top five topics that spark conflict within their households. The parents were also separated from the children and asked to perform a few stressful activities. Researchers say stressed parents who suppress their emotions are less engaged with and colder towards their children.
“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 explains. “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.”
In one control group of mothers, who were asked to embrace their emotions, stress was not transmitted to their children. For those who were asked to suppress their emotions, more signs of stress were evident in their children. This result differs among fathers however, as study authors say they’re less likely to pass off stress to their offspring.
“We think that fathers not transmitting their suppressed stress may be because, often, fathers tend to suppress their emotions around their children more than mothers do,” the assistant professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development says. “The kids have experiences with their dad saying things are fine even when they’re not. But it was more abnormal for kids to see their mom suppressing their emotions and they reacted to that.”
Parents shouldn’t suppress emotion, especially during quarantine
During a global pandemic, researchers find these problems can grown even worse as children express frustration living in lockdown. The study suggests parents do damage control, allowing themselves and their children to vent their feelings instead of assuring them everything will be alright.
“We don’t want this to be another thing that parents stress out about when raising their kids,” Waters adds. “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.”
The study is published in the Journal of Family Psychology.