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Kids know when their parents hide stress, and it stresses them out

Your kids can tell when you’re trying to conceal stress, and holding back feelings of frustration can cause more harm than good. In a new study from Washington University, researchers found that a parent’s suppressed emotions are often transferred to children. 

Stress and frustration are typical emotions that arise in a family setting. These feelings may be particularly prevalent now, as parents and children are spending more time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While analyzing family interactions, experts have discovered that many children exhibit a physiological response when their parents attempt to conceal stress. 

“We show that the response happens under the skin,” said study co-author Professor Sara Waters. “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.”

The study was focused on 107 parents and their children, who were between the ages of 7 and 11. Both parents and children were initially asked to list the top five topics that commonly caused conflict between them. 

Separated from the children, the parents were asked to perform a stressful activity like public speaking to activate the physiological stress response system.

Once the parent had reached the point of feeling stressed out, the children were brought back into the room. The parent-child pairs were asked to discuss the topic of conflict that ranked highest on both of their lists. 

Half of the parents were asked to suppress their emotions during the conversations, which were all captured on video. All of the study participants were wearing sensors for physiological stress detection.

When a group of third party participants viewed and scored the taped conversations, the results indicated that both parents and children were less warm and engaged with each other when emotions were suppressed.

“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,” explained Professor Waters. “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.”

When the mothers concealed feelings of stress, the children exhibited more signs of stress, both physiologically and externally. This was not the case among children whose mothers communicated about their frustrations. 

Furthermore, measurable feelings of stress were not transferred to the children from any of the fathers.

“We found that moms and dads were different,” said Professor Waters. “We were looking for a physiological response, but there wasn’t one in either the control or the experimental condition where dads transmitted stress to their kids.”

“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 kids have experience 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.”

According to Professor Waters, previous research shows that it is more comforting for kids to have their feelings honored than to just be told that everything is going to be fine.

“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. Try not to show that you’re frustrated with them, or solve their problem. And try to do the same for yourself, give yourself permission to be frustrated and emotional.”

Professor Waters emphasized that she does not want the outcome of this study to cause parents more stress.

“We don’t want this to be another thing that parents stress out about when raising their kids. 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.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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