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Fighting in Front of Your Kids is Better Than Bottling It Up

Being honest and open about disagreements is far more reassuring for children than shout-whispering behind closed doors.

Suppressing your emotions is seldom a good idea but, for parents, there may be several reasons to express yourself openly in front of your children, according to new research. Social scientists found that mothers and fathers who actively suppress feelings of frustration and anger offer less guidance during collaborative tasks and seem to unwittingly transmit their stress to their children. Parents who expressed their feelings openly, on the other hand, experienced far better results.

“We wanted to look at how we suppress emotions and how that changes the way parents and kids interact,” said co-author on the study Sara Waters of Washington State University in a statement. “Kids pick up on suppression, but it’s something a lot of parents think is a good thing to do.”

Studies have shown that people who hold back feelings of anger turn out angrier in the long run, and that suppressing emotions may be linked to heart disease and even some types of cancer. So Waters went into the study suspecting that emotional suppression would not be a great quality for parents. But in order to test how emotional suppression impacts the unique parent-child relationship, she recruited 109 mothers and fathers and placed them in stressful situations. In one phase, parents were given a public speaking task, with negative audience feedback. In another phase, they were asked to assemble a Lego display without instructions. In these trying moments, the parents were monitored via camera and a suite of sensors that measured heart rate and other physical responses.

They found that parents who suppressed their feelings of frustration “offered less guidance,” Waters says. “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.”

Interestingly, the effect was far more significant with mothers than fathers. Waters suspects that this may be because men suppress their emotions more often, so children become desensitized to seeing their fathers grit their teeth and move along. But she cannot be sure, because so few fathers were involved in the study. (“It’s really hard to get dads to participate in research projects,” she says).

As an alternative to hiding your feelings and transmitting stress to your kids unwittingly, Waters suggests using stressful times as teachable moments. “Let them see the whole trajectory,” she says. “That helps kids learn to regulate their own emotions and solve problems. They see that problems can get resolved. It’s best to let the kids know you feel angry, and tell them what you’re going to do about it to make the situation better.”