Expressing Negative Emotions Can Be Beneficial

Find out what the latest research says
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Recent research from Washington State University-Vancouver reveals that it may be better for parents to express negative emotions in a healthy way in front of their children, instead of “tamping them down.” 

The study, published in the academic journal Emotion, was conducted on 109 San Francisco mothers or fathers with their children. The sample was split almost evenly between mothers and fathers, because scientists wanted to see if any differences existed in the results between genders.

First, researchers gave each parent a stressful task: public speaking with negative feedback provided by the audience. Then, parents were given an activity to complete with their children, and some were 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 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.

Parents and children were hooked up to a variety of sensors to measure heart rate, stress levels, etc. 

“The act of trying to suppress their stress made parents less positive partners during the Lego task,” says Sara Waters, assistant professor in Washington State University-Vancouver’s department of human development.. “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 … 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.”

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. 


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