According to a new study from Washington State University, sheltering kids from conflict and negative emotions is not good for them. The researchers have discovered that it is much better to express emotions in a healthy way.
Study lead author Sara Waters is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development on the WSU Vancouver campus.
“We wanted to look at how we suppress emotions and how that changes the way parents and kids interact,” said Professor Waters. “Kids pick up on suppression, but it’s something a lot of parents think is a good thing to do.”
The investigation was focused on 109 mothers or fathers with their children in San Francisco. The parents were given an activity to complete with their children, during which some were instructed to suppress their emotions while others were told to act naturally.
The activity involved the assembly of a Lego project. The children, who were between the ages of 7 and 11, were given the instructions and were asked to guide the parents through the assembly. The children were not allowed to touch the Legos and the parents could not look at the instructions.
“We were interested in behaviors,” said Professor Waters. “We looked at the responsiveness, warmth, quality of the interactions, how the parent provided guidance for the child.”
The researchers watched 109 video recordings and noted every warm interaction as well as other emotions. In addition, the parents and children were hooked up to sensors that measured heart rate and stress levels.
“The act of trying to suppress their stress made parents less positive partners during the Lego task,” said Professor Waters. “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.”
The study also revealed that emotional suppression made kids more sensitive to their mothers. However, the children showed less change in their responses when a father was suppressing his emotions.
According to Professor Waters, 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. 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.”
Professor Waters explained that it is best for children to see healthy conflict, from start to resolution, rather than suppressed emotions.
“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.”
The study is published in the journal Emotion.