The ultimate goal of parenting is to provide your children with a sense of security and stability. This can be hard to achieve especially in times of socio-economic uncertainty. When parents find themselves in troubled waters they feel inclined to maintain a facade of well-being for the kids. The intent is to shield their children from the stress and anxiety associated with unpredictable circumstances. The common assumption is that kids will feel more secure if their parents keep it together.
But a new research suggests that kids are much smarter at picking up subtle cues from stressed parents. The study conducted at the Washington State University examined the interaction between parents and their children aged 7 – 11 years old. The study findings suggest that children show a physiological response to their parent’s suppressed stress.
The study recruited 107 parents and their children. They interviewed the parent and the child and asked them to list 5 topics that lead to conflict between them. Following this they separated the parents from the children and engaged the parents in a stressful activity, such as public speaking, to induce stress. With the parent’s physiological stress response system activated; they were reunited with their children and asked to discuss the top ranking topic on their list.
In the experiment half of the parents were instructed to hide their emotions. The researchers noted that the parents suppressing their emotions appeared less warm and engaging. The study finds also suggest that the mothers who were not asked to hide their stressful state did not transmit it to their children. While the mothers asked to suppress their emotions; their children exhibited high levels of stress.
Furthermore, the research findings showed that while the fathers may transmit stress to children — the children did not show a physiological response. The scientist conjectured that it might be because children are used to fathers pretending things to be alright when they are not, but it is more abnormal for children to see their mothers suppressing their emotions, so they elicited a stronger response when the mothers were emotional unavailable.
The more parents feel that they are not in control of their circumstances; the more they feel the urge to reassure their kids that everything is alright. But trying to mask their emotions makes them less emotionally available and involved with their children, which causes the children to reciprocate the same amount of stress.
When it comes to children sharing their problems with their parents, it is best for parents to sit with them and help them regulate their emotions; rather than rushing to comfort them by asserting that everything is going to be okay. Likewise, parents should try to do the same for themselves and allow themselves to be frustrated and emotional rather than always desperately trying to fake a state of calm for the kids.
Life is not always rainbows and sunshines and once in a while it is okay to not force a smile and say that everything is fine.