In a world turned upside-down by pandemic, it's tempting to tell a few white lies to the kids. Sure, the family has been holed up at home for weeks, and daddy seems to have all the free time in the world these days. And the people who do pass by outside the window are wearing masks. But everything is A-OK.
But, of course, it isn't. And lying to your kids about what we're all going through right now may be a very bad idea.
Because, according to new research, children not only see right through their parents, they also soak up all their anxieties. The paper, published this month in the Journal of Family Psychology, focused on interactions between children between the ages of 7 and 11 and their parents. The children, the researchers noted, showed a real, physical response whenever parents tried to hide the way they were feeling.
"We show that the response happens under the skin," study co-author Sara Waters of Washington State University's Department of Human Development notes in a news release. "It shows what happens when we tell kids that we're fine when we're not. It comes from a good place; we don't want to stress them out. But we may be doing the exact opposite."
For the study, researchers asked 107 parents, along with the kids, to list five subjects that most commonly caused conflict between them. In a follow-up exercise, they separated parents and asked them to perform a stressful activity, such as public speaking, in order to activate the physiological stress response system. That's the biological and psychological response humans have to "a threat we feel we do not have the resources to deal with," as Simply Psychology notes.
When it's triggered, we typically breathe faster, the heart races and even the liver pitches in by releasing glucose to give us extra energy.
Then the kids were asked to rejoin their stressed-out parents — and strike up a conversation about an issue that typically causes conflict. But this time, half the parents were asked to bottle up that stress and pretend everything was A-OK.
Did the kids buy it?
Not according to the physiological sensors attached to both child and adult — or an independent audience that viewed their interactions. In fact, the kids showed signs of mirroring their parents' stress, even when it was suppressed. A third party of neutral observers also noted parents and children were less warm and engaged with each other.
"That makes sense for a parent distracted by trying to keep their stress hidden, but the kids very quickly changed their behavior to match the parent," Waters explains in the release. "So if you're stressed and just say, ‘Oh, I'm fine', that only makes you less available to your child. We found that the kids picked up on that and reciprocated, which becomes a self-fulfilling dynamic."
Stress begets stress, and it has a measurable impact on the parent-child relationship.
But researchers noted a distinct difference in how mothers and fathers transmitted their anxieties. Fathers — whether they tried to conceal it or not — always beamed their stress to children. The stress of mothers, on the other hand, was only contagious when they tried to hide it. In fact, that's when children showed even more signs of stress.
"We found that moms and dads were different," Waters notes. "We were looking for a physiological response, but there wasn't one in either the control or the experimental condition where dads transmitted stress to their kids."
The researchers suggest that difference may be due to the fact that children are used to hearing their father say things are just dandy — even when they're not. So they may be able to tell when he's just doing his "dad thing" and reassuring everyone while quietly losing his marbles.
"We think that fathers not transmitting their suppressed stress may be because, often, fathers tend to suppress their emotions around their children more than mothers do," Waters explains.
Which brings us to a certain fatally serious pandemic that parents may be trying to downplay to keep their kids calm. According to this research, it may be having the opposite effect.
A better parental play?
"Just sit with them and give them a chance to regulate those emotions on their own," Waters suggests, "Try not to show that you're frustrated with them, or solve their problem. And try to do the same for yourself, give yourself permission to be frustrated and emotional."