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‘Not in front of the kids’ is an age-old plea for parents to avoid showing conflict and strong negative emotions around their children. New research suggests otherwise, showing that it’s better to express negative emotions in a healthy way than to tamp them down.

Research has found that children have a better relationship with their parents if the adults show when they are aggravated, stressed or angry. The research was published in the Journal of Emotion dispels the belief of not arguing in front of the kids as youngsters are able to tell when their parents are hiding something and this can cause confusion.

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The study was conducted on 109 mothers or fathers with their children in San Francisco. The sample was split almost evenly between mothers and fathers, as the scientists wanted to see if any differences existed in the results between genders.

First, the researchers gave the parent a stressful task: public speaking with negative feedback provided by the audience. Then, the parents were given an activity to complete with their children, with some randomly told to suppress their emotions. The others were told to act naturally.

The activity was the same for all pairs, working together to assemble a Lego project. However, the kids, ages 7-11, received the paper instructions but weren’t allowed to touch the Legos. The parents had to assemble the project, but couldn’t look at the instructions. This forced them to work together closely to succeed.

“We wanted to look at how we suppress emotions and how that changes the way parents and kids interact. Kids pick up on suppression, but it’s something a lot of parents think is a good thing to do,”

– Study author Sara Waters.

Waters and her co-authors had a team of undergraduate research assistants from WSU Vancouver watch all 109 videos of the interactions to mark every instance of warmth, guidance, and other emotions. Both the parent and the child were also hooked up to a variety of sensors, to measure heart rate, stress levels, etc. The study authors combined that data with the coding done by the assistants to get their results.

“We were interested in behaviors. We looked at the responsiveness, warmth, quality of the interactions, how the parent provided guidance for the child.”

“The act of trying to suppress their stress made parents less positive partners during the Lego task”

“They offered less guidance, but it wasn’t just the parents who responded. Those kids were less responsive and positive to their parents. It’s almost like the parents were transmitting those emotions”

– Sara Waters

The researchers also found out that that emotional suppression made kids more sensitive to their mothers. The children showed less change in their responses when a father was suppressing his emotions.

Rather than suppressing emotions in front of your children, Waters suggests the best course of action is to let kids see a healthy conflict, from start to resolution.

Reference:

Helena Rose Karnilowicz, Sara F. Waters, Wendy Berry Mendes. Not in front of the kids: Effects of parental suppression on socialization behaviors during cooperative parent–child interactions.. Emotion, 2018; DOI: 10.1037/emo0000527