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Hiding Negative Feelings

September 01, 2016

Imagine that for twenty minutes, your 4-year-old has been fussing at the playground, crying and complaining and kicking sand at other children. Feeling growing irritation, you inch toward delivering a serious scolding. But you sense the watchful eyes of parents nearby, and so you suppress your feelings and handle the moment with faked aplomb.

Checking in on your daughter, who has been playing quietly in her room, you discover that her dresser drawers have been overturned and clothes are heaped everywhere. Your temperature races to a boil but before you react, you remember reading about never disciplining children from a place of anger. So you suppress your feelings and handle the moment with forced calm and equanimity.

Are we and our children better off when we suppress our negative emotions, or when we’re honest and transparent with our feelings?

Researchers at the University of Toronto studied this very question with 162 parents1. They found that when parents suppressed their negative emotions — squelching feelings like upset, anger, and sadness — they reported a reduced sense of their own emotional well-being, poorer quality of relationship with their children, and less effective responsiveness to their kids’ needs. In other words, both parents and children seemed to pay a price when parents suppressed negative feelings. Why might this be?

Hiding our negative emotions decreases our sense of authenticity, defined as operating according to our core sense of who we are.2 Authenticity seems to be a critical component of personal well-being, whether in our role as parents or any of our important relationships. By regularly suppressing negative feelings when we interact with our kids, we seem to lay the foundation for a less satisfying parenting experience.

In addition, suppressing negative emotion requires effort, which researchers suspect may deplete our emotional and energy resources. Depleted in this way, we may be compromised in our ability to effectively meet our children’s needs.

Better to strive for a modulated middle ground — without excessive volume or drama, without allowing our anger to burst forth suddenly and without restraint — so that we can say “I’m frustrated” or “I’m angry” or “I’m upset with you right now.” Our children seem better off — and so are we — when we bring emotional honesty to the challenging task of guiding our kids along a smart and healthy path.

References & Citations
  1. Le, Bonnie M. & Impett, E. “The costs of suppressing negative emotions and amplifying positive emotions during parental caregiving.” Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin.March 2016 (42,3) 323336.
  2. English, T., & John, O. P. “Understanding the social effects of emotion regulation: The mediating role of authenticity for individual differences in suppression.Emotion, 2013,13, 314-329. doi:10.1037/a0029847