Parents know kids can be great and awful and maddening, inspiring in us the full range of human emotion. What parents might not know is that holding back the more negative emotions—and overexpressing the positive ones—can be bad for their well-being, according to new research.
"Caring for children can be highly meaningful and gratifying, but it can also be difficult, frustrating, or boring," and parents might not always want to express their true emotions, write University of Toronto psychology graduate student Bonnie Le and University of Toronto Mississauga assistant professor of psychology Emily Impett in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. "For instance, parents might withhold their expressions of negative emotions in public so as to not hurt their child or damage their own self-image, or they might express greater joy than they really feel to show their child support or share in happy experiences together."
"Caring for children can be highly meaningful and gratifying, but it can also be difficult, frustrating, or boring."
Le and Impett wanted to know how suppressing negative emotions and overemphasizing positive ones might impact parents' well-being. The answer, in short: It's not good for them. In one version of their experiments, Le and Impett recruited 162 parents of young children online and asked them to recall three recent experiences with their kids. For the control case, parents only relayed an example of caregiving for their children, the emotions they felt doing so, and how they behaved toward their children. For the other two experiences, parents were supposed to write about a time they'd held back negative emotions, such as sadness or anger, and a time they'd enhanced positive emotions, such as joy or excitement. After writing about each experience, the parents rated how true they'd been to themselves in that situation, their emotional well-being, and other factors on a scale from one to seven.
When thinking about a time they suppressed negative emotions, parents reported feeling about 20 percent less true to themselves and rated their emotional well-being at about half what it was in the control case. More surprisingly, roughly the same was true when they overstated their positive emotions—compared to the control case, parents felt about one-third less authentic and rated their well-being about 30 percent lower. Parents' relationships with their kids and their responsiveness to their kids' needs also suffered. A second study, in which 118 parents wrote about their experiences with their children for 10 days, replicated the first experiment's findings.
"The findings shed light on one condition under which parenting may be associated with more pain than pleasure: when parents express more positive emotions than they genuinely feel and mask the negative emotions that they do feel when caring for their children," Le and Impett write. "Future research should identify more adaptive ways for parents to regulate their emotions that allow them to feel true to themselves and contribute to the most joyful and optimal experiences of parenting."
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