Look Out, Parents! The Kids are Catching Your Emotions

Susan and Larry called our counseling clinic to get help dealing with the problems of their seven year-old son, Billy. Billy was falling behind in school, having trouble paying attention in class, getting into skirmishes with kids on the playground, and fighting constantly with his four-year old sister. Mom and Dad were upset, worried, and wanted help. Sound familiar?

In the first meeting with this family, the tension and conflict between Mom and Dad was palpable. Although there was a lot of love and warmth expressed, Susan and Larry could not get on the same page about how to discipline. Each time Susan raised her voice or Larry rolled his eyes, the two kids started to fight over a stuffed bear in my office.

This kind of case is common in our clinic, and is often resolved with only four or five sessions, especially when the parents are open to feedback and are motivated to make some changes. If we can work with the parents to resolve their conflict and lower the emotional volatility in the family, the kids begin to settle down almost immediately. What are the lessons that all parents can take away from this example?

Dealing with emotions-our own and those of our kids and partners- can be one of the more painful, frustrating, and ultimately fulfilling parts of being in a family. One of the things we know about emotions, and now have the scientific proof, is that emotions are contagious. When parents are tired and grumpy, the kids begin to feel the effects immediately (and unconsciously). Then they start whining or fighting which, in turn, only makes things worse for the parents. And the inverse is also true– Dad can walk in the door happy from a constructive day at work, and quickly change to a negative mood, caused by the storm clouds of unhappy children and a frustrated partner. This is a hallmark of a close family, not a dysfunctional one. The more we care about others, the more we feel what they feel–whether we like it or not.

In research on marital conflict done by John Gottman and colleagues, they found that they could measure parental conflict in two ways. One was from the self-reports of husbands and wives when asked about marital satisfaction. The second way was by taking a 24-hour urine sample from the children. In homes with high levels of conflict, the children were secreting higher thn normal levels of adrenaline, demonstrating the stress the kids were experiencing in their bodies–and undoubtedly illustrating with their behavior as well. This is why one of the most important gifts that parents can give to their kids is to learn how to work with their own difficult emotions, thus lowering adult stress in the family.

It is now common knowledge how stress plays a critical role in our health and well-being, physically, emotionally, and in relationships. One of the systems that stress negatively affects in kids is their ability to pay attention. To turn back to the case at the beginning…No wonder Billy was having trouble in school and struggling to control his own emotional outbursts. Not only was he imitating some of the behaviors that Mom and Dad were exemplifying, but he was a walking example of a little boy with too much adrenaline.

A second lesson that parents can learn from this case is how important it is to approach parenting like a team sport. There has to be a game plan–which means meeting together to come up with goals and also to do problem-solving when things aren’t working. When parents can’t agree about how to handle a child’s misbehavior, invariably the kids get caught in the middle. Getting mixed messages also stresses kids out. When parents take the time to work out conflicts and come to agreements–either on their own or with professional help-the emotions that can spread will be positive again. Joy and laughter are just as infectious and make us all feel loved and connected.



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