Watch out parents! Your emotions are contagious

The transfer of negative emotions from parents has an adverse impact on the cognitive and emotional development of children

By Aruna Raghuram

Watch out parents! Your emotions are contagious

Ritu is on her way home after a tiring, stressful day at work. Her head is pounding as she goes over her interaction with her difficult boss. The more she thinks about what she should have said, the worse the headache gets. When she enters her home, her two children, Mohit, 5, and Sanjana, 8, launch themselves at her in delight. Ritu gives them both a hug but they are able to sense her tension.

Her children are not able to figure out why their mom is not smiling. They have been waiting for her to get home to excitedly share the day’s happenings with her. Sanjana withdraws into her room wondering whether she has done something wrong. Mohit follows his mother around like a lost sheep. If only Ritu had explained to her children why she was in a bad mood, they would not have felt distanced.

As the story above illustrates, emotions are contagious and parental moods and emotions can affect children. While transferring positive emotions is beneficial, parents worry that showing negative emotions in front of their children will impact them negatively. Parents fear that their children may think it is their fault that their parent is angry or sad. Or, they may fear their child will ‘catch’ the emotions and feel a similar way. The latter worry has a sound basis as ‘emotional contagion’ is real.

What is emotional contagion?
The book Emotional Contagion: Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction, authored by Elaine Hatfield and others, explains that people can communicate their moods and feelings, whether happiness or sadness (or any other emotion) easily to others. This phenomenon, known as ‘emotional contagion’, occurs because people tend to synchronize their facial expressions, voices, postures, actions, and emotional behaviours, with those of people around them. In other words, we pick up verbal and non-verbal cues from others and mimic them.

When we imitate another person’s expressions or behaviour, reactions are triggered in our brains such that we experience the same feelings they are feeling. That’s how emotions get transferred from person to person. It does not end here. The contagion affects our cognition and behaviour too. The whole process often happens unconsciously.

Positive emotions
Fortunately, positive emotions are also contagious. Charles Dickens said, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.” Just being around positive people helps you feel more energetic, motivated and less stressed. Calmness or serenity is another positive emotion that is very contagious.

A 2008 study by Fowler and Christakis published in The BMJ, focussed on how happiness spreads from person to person. It revealed that when a friend becomes happy, it increases your own chances of happiness by 25%. That’s because the happiness of a person depends on the happiness of others with whom he is connected. In fact, the study suggests seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.

Positive emotions can go a long way to undo the impact of negative emotions and help us build our psychological reserves. An example of this would be how memories of a joyful holiday spent with parents can invoke happiness in a child and help him get through a sad phase. Research has found that experiencing positive emotions makes people more creative, resilient, trusting, and tolerant. To encourage positivity in our children, we need to communicate our positive emotions to them effectively, thereby teaching them how to communicate theirs.

Negative emotions
No parent can be happy and feel positive always. You are bound to feel angry, frustrated, resentful, sad, fearful and anxious, at times. How contagious parental emotions are depends on their intensity and how emphatically they are communicated.

Are negative emotions more contagious than positive ones? Some experts believe this to be true and the reason they give is the survival instinct. For instance, being keenly aware of the fear of someone around you can warn you of impending danger.

It is a given that the emotional and cognitive development of children whose parents express negative emotions frequently is adversely impacted. Children picking up negative emotions from parents may stop sharing their problems, withdraw emotionally from parents, and communicate less at home. Also, younger children see their parents as role models and there is danger that they may replicate the negative behaviour of parents.

Researchers have studied how parents transmit the fear of going to a dentist to their children! Similarly, phobias such as the fear of lifts or cockroaches can be transferred to children. Children of parents who are chronically under a great deal of stress are likely to be stressed out themselves. Also, depression in children has been linked to being raised by parents who are/were depressed. If a parent seems constantly anxious, her child may come to believe that the world is an unsafe place in general.

Very young children, who are not yet exposed to emotional regulation strategies, may respond to a parent’s consistent display of negative emotions by throwing tantrums, clinging to parents out of insecurity, develop phobias, or stop eating or sleeping properly.

Who is more vulnerable to emotional contagion?
Children are more likely to catch negative emotions from their parents than vice versa. That’s probably because parents, given their age and range of experiences, are more resilient. Younger children are more susceptible to their parents’ moods. Moreover, children who are clued in to the emotions of others (those are sensitive and empathetic) and value relationships (are more emotionally dependent), are likely to be more susceptible to emotional contagion than others. Again, the closer the person and more frequent the interaction, the more contagious the emotions. Is it any wonder that children, who are like sponges, catch parental emotions so easily?  

Watch out parents! Your emotions are contagious

Dealing with negative emotions
These are the three options parents have in situations when they are swamped by negative emotions:

  1. Parents could unleash their negative emotions. They could yell in frustration at their children, or worse. When parents are unable to control high-intensity emotions like anger or sadness, it affects their children a great deal. When parents rave and rant and get physical by throwing things it frightens children and makes them withdraw.
  2. Parents could suppress their emotions. For instance, they could withdraw into the washroom to have a good cry away from their children. What is the impact when parents hide their negative feelings and sometimes fake positive emotions? A 2016 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, authored by Le and Impett, observes that when parents suppress negative emotions and amplify positive ones it affects the quality of their relationship with their children. The relationship becomes less authentic. Also, parents become less responsive to the needs of their children.
  3. Parents could regulate their emotions. The third option is the best for both parents and children. Emotional regulation is managing emotions and expressing them appropriately. In fact, one of the most important skills for effective parenting is the ability to regulate emotions.

Realising the adverse impact of your negative emotions on your children is a strong incentive to do something to stop affecting them. Here are some suggestions you could follow:

Be aware: Many parents are unaware of how their words and actions affect their children. Others may feel that their child ‘will understand’. Why should a child be expected to understand a parent’s emotional baggage? Still others may believe that their children may not perceive their emotions. This again is a fallacy. Research has found that even four-month-old infants can figure out their parents’ basic emotions!

Regulate your emotions: Pause before you launch into a tirade and stop yourself from expressing negative emotions. Take a deep breath to calm yourself and clear your head. Become self-aware – observe what is going on in your body and mind when you are in the grip of a strong emotion. Notice your surroundings – how your children are reacting to you. Act consciously in the best interests of yourself and your children.

Talk about emotions: You can counter emotional contagion in the context of negative emotions by talking to your child in an age-appropriate manner. You could explain why you are feeling a particular way and how you are trying to deal with your feelings. Children benefit from watching their parents manage their emotions. This is a learning experience for them on how to regulate emotions.
Also, by sharing our emotions, be it fear, grief or anger, with our children, we are letting them know that it is okay to feel these things. When we talk about our emotions to our children, they will begin to do the same.

Take a time-out: If you find it difficult to control your emotions, it is better to distance yourself from the situation for a while. Go to another room after making sure your child is safe. But before doing so, explain to your disturbed child why you need some time alone.

Seek feedback: Ask your child later whether your facial expressions or tone of voice made her feel alienated or scared. This will make you more mindful of your behaviour. Together, then, you could work out behaviours through which you can be comfortable expressing your negative emotions without making her scared.

Boost your immunity: Make yourself less vulnerable to negative emotions by ensuring you make time for self-care. Also get adequate sleep, exercise, and healthy food. Try meditation, mindfulness and ‘cognitive reframing’ (looking at a situation from a different perspective), or changing your expectations (from a situation or person).

Try being positive: Listen to either upbeat or calming music so that you are equipped to interact with your children in a positive frame of mind. Try to set aside your bad mood for a while when you are with your child.

Lighten the atmosphere: When parental emotions (annoyance, frustration) are directly linked to the behaviour of their children what are they to do? If you are indeed exasperated by your child’s behaviour, and on the point of screaming in anger, try giving him a hug or singing a silly song to diffuse the tension. When his parent reacts harshly, a child is likely to feel fearful and distressed and this is likely to worsen the situation. The parent’s negative emotion (anger) causes what Hatfield has called a “counter-contagion” – fear.

All of us experience a spectrum of positive and negative emotions. So, the next time you feel sad, annoyed or anxious around your child, do not suppress your emotions. It is better to let him watch you express them appropriately. Explain things to him so that he understands what is going on. His warm hug or reassuring words may make you feel a lot better!

Ritu takes a time out- she changes into comfortable clothes and freshens up. When she’s feeling calmer, she goes to her children and tells them, “Let’s eat dinner together” At the dinner table, she initiates a game wherein everyone talks about a challenge they faced during the day and how they overcame it. When Ritu explains her difficult interaction with her boss, her children pitch in with hugs and reassuring words. She is feeling much better now, and is thankful she chose to talk about it with her children.

In a nutshell

  • Emotions are contagious. Parents transfer both positive and negative emotions to their children
  • While spreading positive emotions is important, it is equally important to avoid harming our children by transferring negative ones
  • Showing emotions around your child is good but it must be done in an appropriate manner
  • A vital skill for effective parenting is the ability to regulate emotions

What you could do right away

  • Start recognising your mood triggers and understanding your emotions
  • The next time you feel sad, don’t hesitate to cry in front of your child. But do explain to her that you are having a bad day (nothing to do with her) and will talk to a friend on the phone to feel better
  • If your child is very sensitive and picks up negative vibes around quickly, help her deal with her emotions   

About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 9 January 2020.
Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a freelancer with ParentCircle.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 10 January 2020.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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