Let Your Kids Know How Stressed You Are

Whether you’re anxious about Covid-19 or something else, it’s best to fess up

Photo: Tom Werner/Getty Images

Stressed-out parents may think it’s perfectly logical to hide their stress from the kids, but a new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology suggests children see right through the deception, and it just stresses them out, too. The advice: Let it out, within reason.

“It is important that we are honest with our children about our feelings, including negative emotions like stress or upset,” says study leader Sara Waters, PhD, an assistant professor in Washington State University’s Department of Human Development. “This does not mean that we should share all the details of our upset with our children or that we should take our stress out on them.” But pretending everything is fine when it’s not can backfire, the research suggests.

Waters and her colleagues brought 107 volunteering parents into a lab setting, along with their children ages seven to 11, and split them apart. Parents were forced to do something stressful — giving a speech about themselves to a small audience of arm-crossed, head-shaking critics — and then each had a conversation with their child about a topic both had ranked as high in potential for conflict. Half the parents were asked to suppress their emotions, the other half not.

The advice: Let it out, within reason.

All the parents and children were wired with stress monitors to measure signs of stress, such as elevated heart rates.

When a parent suppressed emotions, both they and child were less engaged and less warm with each other, according to scores given by volunteers who watched videos of the interactions and who didn’t know what instructions had been given to each parent.

“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 explains. “So if you’re stressed and just say, ‘Oh, I’m fine,’ that only makes you less available to your child. We found that the kids picked up on that and reciprocated, which becomes a self-fulfilling dynamic.”

Emotional authenticity pays off

When moms suppressed their emotions, their children showed more signs of stress, too, as measured by the sensors and also as rated by objective viewers. That didn’t happen with dads, however.

Perhaps fathers didn’t transmit suppressed stress because often they “tend to suppress their emotions around their children more than mothers do,” and the kids are used to it, Waters says. “But it was more abnormal for kids to see their mom suppressing their emotions, and they reacted to that.”

The study was well designed, and importantly included fathers, who are often omitted in this type of research, says Mary Alvord, PhD, a psychologist practicing in Maryland and co-author of the book Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescents.

Alvord says that because the research involved relatively mild stressors, it can’t necessarily be generalized to more serious stress. But she says the study adds to evidence suggesting parents should be “emotionally authentic” with their children and talk to them about stressful or difficult news or events “in as calm a state as possible.”

This increases the chance their child will also stay calmer and therefore better absorb and handle the information. (Separately, Alvord recently provided several suggestions on how to talk to kids about the coronavirus.)

“This does not mean that we should share all the details of our upset with our children or that we should take our stress out on them.”

Keep calm and…

Waters agrees the study looked at relatively mild and short-lived stress, much different from pandemic stress. “But the ways we support our children through it are not that different,” she tells Elemental.

Her advice, for both mothers and fathers, aims to make the parent a role model of emotional resilience:

  • Ask what your child has heard about the pandemic and what they’re worried about.
  • Really listen, and make it safe for them to express themselves.
  • Be honest about your stress, without sharing more information than is needed.
  • Show them what you do to feel calmer and discuss tactics for them.

“It is important that we as parents find ways to manage our stress effectively (which starts with acknowledging it) and include our children in these efforts,” Waters says. “It is okay to not be okay right now.” And then, she says, try not to worry about your children too much. “Kids will work their way through it as long as they have a supportive caregiver. They’re good at it.”

Independent health and science journalist, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience, writing about how we age and how to optimize your mind and body through time.

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