Parents: Don’t turn that frown upside down

Mother talking to son
Thursday, February 25, 2016 - 11:51am
Sharon Aschaiek

Putting on a happy face around children to shield them from negativity is a common parenting tactic, but the consequences can be less-than-happy for parents.

A new study by University of Toronto Mississauga researchers has found that when parents suppress their negative emotions and amplify their positive emotions around their children, it can detract from their wellbeing. Specifically, it affects parents’ ability to be genuine, which can negatively impact their emotional health, and how they relate to and support their children.

“A lot of research shows the importance of having our inner values and beliefs be consistent with the way we act on the outside. When we lack authenticity, that takes away from our wellbeing, and from the quality of our relationship with our children,” says lead study author Bonnie Le, a PhD student in psychology and post-doctoral fellow in UTM’s Relationships and Well-Being Laboratory, which is run by associate professor of psychology Emily Impett, the study co-author.

Le and Impett performed two experiments to determine the cost of this emotional regulation strategy. The first involved asking 162 parents to recall three recent caregiving situations where they masked emotions such as anger, frustration or sadness, and expressed more positivity than they actually felt, or when they didn’t feel it at all. Many parents said when their children misbehaved, they inhibited their negative feelings, perhaps to not overreact in the moment or publicly embarrass them. Or, when their child was ill, they shelved their worry so they could properly attend to them. On the flip side, if the parents were tired, bored or stressed, they still showed excitement and interest when playing with their child, in order to make them happy.

In the second experiment, they asked 118 parents to complete surveys for 10 days about their daily caregiving experiences with their children. Among the questions they were asked were, “How satisfied did you feel with your relationship with your child in general today,” “How much conflict did you have with your child in general today,” and “To what extent do you think you met your child’s needs in this situation?” The results closely matched those from the first study – being inauthentic with their feelings was bad for their emotional health, and for their connection with their children.

“They also felt a lower quality of bond with their child, and felt less satisfied with that bond,” Le says. “They felt less able to respond to their child’s needs.”

Supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council through an Insight Grant, an Insight Development Grant, and the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship it awarded to Le, the study is published in the March 2016 edition of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Impett says she hopes the study helps parents find more healthful ways to relate to their children.

“Parents shouldn't attempt to put on a happy face when they don't actually feel happy…when they are not being true to themselves, that actually prevents them from experiencing closeness with their child,” she says. “It’s crucial that we understand more about the experience of parenting, and the things parents can do to contribute to the most rewarding experiences of parenting.”