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Why Do Parents Get Upset When They See Their Children Upset?

Research explains why this is hard for parents and suggests how to stay calm.

Key points

  • Research finds that parents who are highly empathetic and highly reactive to stress may become more upset when their children are upset.
  • Neuroscience research suggests that mothers who experience vicarious distress are more likely to experience a "flight or fight" response.
  • To stay calm, parents should monitor their own stress, regulate their emotions first, practice mindfulness, and focus on perspective-taking.

For so many of us parents, seeing our child upset feels unbearable. Yet, we hear over and over again that the key to being an effective parent is remaining calm when your child is losing it. First, it is important to normalize this experience and emphasize that is extremely difficult for loving parents to see their children upset. Many parents (including myself) have a hard time being present with their child when they are distressed and experience a strong biological drive to “make it better” at any cost (even if it means giving in to a tantrum). So, why is it so hard, and what can we do about it?

Research Summary

Research finds that mothers who are highly empathetic (meaning they are very in touch with the feelings of others including their children) have difficulty being effective parents when they also have an increased tendency to become stressed when their children are upset. In other words, identifying with your children’s feelings plus a “flight or fight” response to your children’s distress equals difficulty staying calm when your children are upset. However, for mothers who reported low levels of stress in response to their children’s distress, empathy was found to be associated with more sensitive parenting. In summary, high levels of empathy help parents to be more sensitive unless high levels of empathy occur with high levels of stress reactivity. If you are highly empathetic and highly reactive, it will be difficult to respond to children in a sensitive, child-centered way.

Neuroscience research backs this up, finding that mothers who experience more personal distress in response to the distress of others show greater cortisol (a.k.a. the stress hormone) and greater activation of the hypothalamus and amygdala (brain regions involved in “flight or fight”). However, another aspect of empathy (perspective taking) was associated with lower cortisol. This research suggests that, if parents tend to experience stress vicariously (that is, when they quite literally can feel their child’s pain), they may be more likely to become stressed when their child is stressed. Yet, if they are simply considering their child’s perspective, they are less likely to become stressed.

Research also finds that when mothers can stay calm and control the stress levels in their body, they are more likely to be able to focus on their child’s needs than their own in a stressful moment, and this shift in thinking predicts more sensitive parenting. Higher reactivity is also associated with a greater likelihood of using harsh parenting strategies, while being able to control the stress response is associated with more positive parenting.

Applying This Research to Your Own Parenting

  1. Be mindful of your stress levels. When do you notice yourself starting to lose your cool? What are the signs in your body? What are the typical situations? What helps you to stay calm? Use these clues to try to prevent situations in which you enter “flight or fight” mode or lose your ability to stay calm.
  2. When you find yourself having difficulty maintaining your calm, remember to regulate your own emotions first. Don’t feel guilty if you need to take a break from the situation to calm yourself down first.
  3. Practice mindfulness. Research finds that when you take a moment to focus on your breathing and notice and accept any emotions, it may lower stress reactivity in the body.
  4. Try to focus on understanding your child’s perspective, rather than focusing only on their emotions. Research shows that this approach may be associated with lower stress reactivity.

In summary, becoming distressed when your child is upset is a normal reaction in parents and may even be a sign that you are a highly empathetic parent. However, there are also evidence-based ways to try to stay calm and be the most effective parent you can be in these challenging moments.

References

Emery, H. T., McElwain, N. L., Groh, A. M., Haydon, K. C., & Roisman, G. I. (2014). Maternal dispositional empathy and electrodermal reactivity: Interactive contributions to maternal sensitivity with toddler-aged children. Journal of Family Psychology, 28(4), 505.

Ho, S. S., Konrath, S., Brown, S., & Swain, J. E. (2014). Empathy and stress related neural responses in maternal decision making. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 8, 152.

Leerkes, E. M., Su, J., Calkins, S. D., Supple, A. J., & O'Brien, M. (2016). Pathways by which mothers’ physiological arousal and regulation while caregiving predict sensitivity to infant distress. Journal of Family Psychology, 30(7), 769.

Joosen, K. J., Mesman, J., Bakermans‐Kranenburg, M. J., Pieper, S., Zeskind, P. S., & Van Ijzendoorn, M. H. (2013). Physiological reactivity to infant crying and observed maternal sensitivity. Infancy, 18(3), 414–431.

Mills‐Koonce, W. R., Propper, C., Gariepy, J. L., Barnett, M., Moore, G. A., Calkins, S., & Cox, M. J. (2009). Psychophysiological correlates of parenting behavior in mothers of young children. Developmental Psychobiology: The Journal of the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology, 51(8), 650–661.

Lindsay, E. K., Young, S., Smyth, J. M., Brown, K. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2018). Acceptance lowers stress reactivity: Dismantling mindfulness training in a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 87, 63–73.

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