*The following is excerpted from an online article posted on PsychCentral.
New research contradicts the commonplace advice to avoid showing conflict and strong negative emotions around one’s children. It may be better to express negative emotions — in a healthy way — rather than hiding feelings.
Dr. Sara Waters, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development on the Washington State University Vancouver campus, and co-authors from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, San Francisco, discuss their findings in the journal Emotion.
“We wanted to look at how we suppress emotions and how that changes the way parents and kids interact,” Waters said. “Kids pick up on suppression, but it’s something a lot of parents think is a good thing to do.”
The study was conducted on 109 mothers or fathers with their children in San Francisco. The sample was split almost evenly between mothers and fathers, as the scientists wanted to see if any differences existed in the results between genders.
First, the researchers gave the parent a stressful task: public speaking with negative feedback provided by the audience.
Then, the parents were given an activity to complete with their children, with some randomly told to suppress their emotions. The others were told to act naturally.
The activity was the same for all pairs, working together to assemble a Lego project. However, the kids, ages 7-11, received the paper instructions, but weren’t allowed to touch the Legos. The parents had to assemble the project, but couldn’t look at the instructions. This forced them to work together closely to succeed.
“We were interested in behaviors,” Waters said. “We looked at the responsiveness, warmth, quality of the interactions, how the parent provided guidance for the child.”
Waters and her co-authors had a team of undergraduate research assistants watch all 109 videos of the interactions to mark every instance of warmth, guidance, and other emotions.
“The act of trying to suppress their stress made parents less positive partners during the Lego task,” Waters said. “They offered less guidance, but it wasn’t just the parents who responded. Those kids were less responsive and positive to their parents. It’s almost like the parents were transmitting those emotions.”
Waters said there are dozens of studies that show kids are good at picking up “emotional residue” from their parents.
“Kids are good at picking up subtle cues from emotions,” she said. “If they feel something negative has happened, and the parents are acting normal and not addressing it, that’s confusing for them. Those are two conflicting messages being sent.”
Rather than suppressing emotions in front of your children, Waters suggests the best course of action is to let kids see a healthy conflict, from start to resolution.
“Let them see the whole trajectory,” she said.
“That helps kids learn to regulate their own emotions and solve problems. They see that problems can get resolved. It’s best to let the kids know you feel angry, and tell them what you’re going to do about it to make the situation better.”