The other night, while driving with my 8-year-old daughter, I explained to her that I was having a particularly overwhelming day, and that the song we were listening to was making me sad.
“If you want to cry while we drive,” she said, “I won’t feel insecure.”
This comment was shocking to me on so many levels.
For one, I was surprised that she had the self-awareness to know that witnessing the weakness of one of the people she relied on most to be strong had the to potential to unsettle her and make her feel unsafe.
For another, I was struck by her intuitive sense that the suppression of my feelings might not be best for me, or maybe even for us.
The cultural mandate for parents clearly dictates that we should hold back our negative emotions and maintain our composure at all times around our children. We’re taught never to discipline in anger, to keep grownup conflict between grownups, and to talk to our children in a way that prioritizes their well-being and self-esteem and deprioritizes our own.
But a recent study of emotional regulation in parents suggests that when a parent holds back or disguises negative feelings, there are negative consequences for parents’ well-being and for the parent-child relationship (Le & Impett, 2016).
The researchers found that when parents felt negative emotions (like anger, frustration, and resentment) and withheld them from their children, the parents experienced lower relationship quality and diminished responsiveness to their child’s needs, well-being, and authenticity relative to times when they weren’t suppressing negative emotions (Le & Impett, 2016).
The suppression of emotions in general appears to be taxing and effortful, and to detract from an individual’s positive emotional resources (Butler, Egloff, Wilhelm, Smith, Erickson, & Gross, 2003; English & John, 2013). The cost for children can be a parent’s emotional attunement, which is essential to the parent-child connection. While suppressing negative emotion, parents often appear unresponsive, distracted, disinterested, or even rejecting.
An interesting corollary to the research that tells us that holding back our negative feelings might be bad is the finding that other types of emotional regulation, an in particular the exaggeration of positive emotions, might be equally bad or even worse. The same study that charted the impact of suppression of negative emotion found that exaggerating positive emotions, for the purpose of reassurance, praise, or supportiveness, can be emotionally costly (Le & Impett, 2016).
Amplifying positive emotions has some of the same effects as suppressing negative emotion, including reduced authenticity, lower responsiveness, diminished relationship quality. But exaggerating positive emotions is even more draining when parents perceive caregiving to be difficult, when parents are tired or bored, or when children are in bad moods (Le & Impett, 2016).
This research suggests that faking it for our kids might not be in our best interests. And it places a premium on our authenticity, the extent to which we can be ourselves and be true to ourselves around our kids. For many people, this idea is counterintuitive, and is contradicted by a hierarchical model of parenting that demands that the parents act like executive management, always even-keeled, unruffled, and in control.
If we were to accept that authenticity was a supreme value in parenting, we’d have a lot of rethinking to do.
As was implied in my daughter’s comment, we’d have to think about how to be honest and direct in our emotional expression without compromising our children's sense of emotional safety. We’d have to think about where the boundaries belonged.
I did take my daughter up on the crying in the car offer—it was a REALLY bad day. And she did manage to stay emotionally grounded, which is not always the case (she’s not usually THAT mature). I did feel better after, and also grateful for not having to fake it. But I also felt pressed on my beliefs about what holding it together for our children really means.
Clearly, I wasn’t faking it as well as I’d hoped. So maybe whatever I was doing to suppress my negative feelings was more of an homage to some abstract parenting principle of self-control than it was in service to my actual daughter. My actual daughter knew I was having a bad day and probably felt some relief when I was able to confidently express my own feelings.
Butler, E. A., Egloff, B., Wilhelm, F. H., Smith, N. C., Erickson, E. A., & Gross, J. J. (2003). The social consequences of expressive suppression. Emotion, 3, 48-67. doi:10.1037/1528-3518.104.22.168
English, T., & John, O. P. (2013). Understanding the social effects of emotion regulation: The mediating role of authenticity for individual differences in suppression. Emotion, 13, 314-329. doi:10.1037/a0029847
Le, B. M. & Impett, E. A. (2016). The costs of suppressing negative emotions and amplifying positive emotions during parental caregiving. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42 (3), 323-336.