While there is no shortage of stress these days, a new study urges parents to reconsider how they share their stress with their kids.
According to researchers from Washington State University, when parents try to mask their stress in front of their kids, it could create more stress for young ones. Instead, experts recommend that parents set the example by honoring all feelings with their kids.
“We show that the response happens under the skin,” said researcher Sarah 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.”
Increasing stress levels
To better understand how parents’ stress can impact their kids’ behavior, the researchers had over 100 parent-child pairs participate in the study.
After learning what topics typically caused issues between the pairs, the researchers had the parents perform an activity that ramped up their stress levels. From there, parents were reunited with their kids and instructed to repress any negative feelings in front of them.
With stress levels sufficiently high, the pairs were instructed to discuss one of the topics that usually incited an argument. The researchers were able to measure their biological stress response via wearable sensors, while outside participants evaluated the parent-children interactions with no knowledge of who was holding in their stress.
Ultimately, it was easy to recognize which parents were concealing their emotions, as those conversations were much more tense. The researchers found that the kids mirrored their parents’ responses, leading the team to conclude that stress breeds more stress.
“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,” said 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 kids picked up on that and reciprocated, which becomes a self-fulfilling dynamic.”
Encouraging open communication
To reduce the likelihood of this stress spiral, the researchers recommend that parents openly communicate with their children about their feelings. Especially during uncertain times, there’s a lot for consumers of all ages to feel nervous or disappointed about, and it’s important that all family members have their voices heard.
“Research shows that it’s more comforting for kids to have their feelings honored than just to be told ‘It’s going to be fine,’” said Waters. “Just sit with them and give them a chance to regulate those emotions on their own. Try not to show them 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.”
Waters’ parting advice is that only positive things can come from parents and kids being more open and honest about their feelings.
“Giving yourself permission to feel opens up your mind to more and better problem solving,” she said. “It’s a good thing.”