Vitality

Regulating Emotions During Child Care Harms Emotional Well-Being and Parent-Child Relationships

mother and baby
Parents who used emotional regulation techniques were much more likely to report experiencing lower authenticity, emotional well-being, relationship quality, and responsiveness to their children’s needs. Photo Courtesy Pixabay, public domain.

A mother’s love is so important that it literally grows her child’s brain; but is too much love a bad thing? Research has shown that helicopter parenting can be harmful to both a child’s physical and mental health, and now a new paper, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggests that parents who regulate their emotions and put on a happy face for their children may harm their parent-child relationship, and suffer from poorer emotional well-being.

The paper discusses two research studies, one experimental study and one 10-day experience study. In the experimental study, 162 parents were asked to recall past parenting situations before they answered a series of questions. From their responses, the researchers found that using emotional regulation as a parenting technique came with serious consequences.

"For the average parent, the findings suggest when they attempt to hide their negative emotion expression and overexpress their positive emotions with their children, it actually comes at a cost: doing so may lead parents to feel worse themselves," said co-author Dr. Emily Impett, in a press release.

Across the board, parents who used emotional regulation techniques were much more likely to report experiencing lower authenticity, emotional well-being, relationship quality, and responsiveness to their children’s needs.

"Parents experienced costs when regulating their emotions in these ways because they felt less authentic, or true to themselves," said lead author Dr. Bonnie Le. "It is important to note that amplifying positive emotions was relatively more costly to engage in, indicating that controlling emotions in ways that may seem beneficial in the context of caring for children can come at a cost."

In order to determine if these results were due to the difficulty of child care, rather than the use of emotional regulation, the researchers conducted a second, experience study. Over the course of 10 days, 118 parents were asked open-ended questions regarding a daily parenting experience. While situations that required more difficult caregiving led to more examples of emotional regulation, the results, overall, highly paralleled the first study.

"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," Dr. Impett said.

In the paper, the authors note that more research is required to determine whether children still benefit from parents’ emotional regulation. After all, past studies have shown that arguing in front of an infant can alter their brain development, and a mother’s stress can be transferred to her baby.

Source: Le BM, Impett EA. The Costs of Suppressing Negative Emotions and Amplifying Positive Emotions During Parental Caregiving. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2016.

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