Parenting in the age of coronavirus is packed with stress. After all, you’re juggling home schooling, work (or the lack of it) and the new realities of social distancing and isolation while trying to keep your family healthy and safe.
But if you’re trying to hide that stress from your children – even with the best intentions of protecting them from the pressure – it’s not going to work, according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal Family Psychology.
“If you’re stressed and just say, ‘Oh, I’m fine,’ that only makes you less available to your child,” said study author Sara Waters, an assistant professor in the department of human development at Washington State University.
We found that the kids picked up on that and reciprocated, which becomes a self-fulfilling dynamic,” Waters said in a statement.
“These are fascinating findings about the way our bodies’ physiology links up with our children’s – for good or bad,” said Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician who teaches at the University of Michigan.
“These are the unspoken ways that children feed off of us, sense our emotional states, and react emotionally themselves,” she said, which are “incredibly relevant” to stress from today’s Covid-19 pandemic.
“There are so many things about Covid-19-related stresses that we may not want to express to our children, such as worries about relatives’ health or finances,” Radesky added.
“These results suggest that stifling emotions don’t get rid of them – they stay under our skin in the form of changes in our heart and nervous system functioning,” she said. “And as most parents know, they can pop out later in the form of irritability, overreacting to our children or yelling.”
What lies beneath
The study put sensors on the bodies of 107 parents, nearly half of whom were dads, and their 7 to 11-year-old children. Parents were asked to list five topics of frequent conflict with their kids, and then they were given activities designed to create stress, such as public speaking.
Once back in the room with their child, parents were asked to talk about one of the family’s top conflicts: Half of the 107 parents were asked to suppress their feelings of stress; the other half were told not to do so.
Interactions were recorded on video and scored by reviewers who did not know which group the parents had been assigned.
Results showed that when parents repressed their stressful feelings, both the parents and the children were rated as “less warm” and “less engaged” with each other.
“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,” Waters said.
In fact, sensors on the child’s body recorded a physical response when the parent hid their emotions, the study found.
“The response happens under the skin,” Waters said.
Differences in parent-child dynamics
One interesting finding was a difference between mothers and fathers. When moms were told to hide their emotions, their children showed even more signs of stress on the physiological sensor and in their outward behavior. That didn’t happen with dads, however.
“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,” Waters said.
Perhaps that’s because dads may suppress emotions around their children more than mothers do, Waters said.
“The kids have experience with their dad saying things are fine even when they’re not,” she said. “But it was more abnormal for kids to see their mom suppressing their emotions, and they reacted to that.”
Don’t guilt yourself over stress
The takeaway from the study for parents, Waters said, is to not stress about your stress.
“Honor your feelings and your child’s feelings,” she said. “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.”
Radesky agreed: “It’s important for parents to know that this isn’t meant to ‘blame’ them, but to give them the power to know that children can feed off of parents’ emotional state in positive ways, too.”
“When we cope in a healthy way, they see us,” she said. “When we express our emotions and show that they are mentionable and manageable, as Mister Rogers said, we teach them that they can do the same. “