Coping with Unpleasant Emotions
written by Rebecca Suffness, PhD
Imagine that your teen is mad that you won’t let her go to a party with friends. Imagine that your child is sad because you stepped on his favorite toy and broke it. How do you react? Your reactions to your children’s unpleasant or negative emotions shape how your children respond to those emotions. This is part of what is known as emotion socialization, or behaviors that parents exhibit which teach their children about emotions.
Emotion socialization involves interactions between parents and children that indirectly teach children about emotions. It also includes parents directly teaching and guiding their children regarding emotions. For example, some parents may not allow their children to be in places that are loud or chaotic, and as a result, these children lack experience coping with such an environment. The specific type of emotion socialization that involves parental reactions to their children’s emotions is sometimes referred to as a contingency because parents’ reactions are contingent on the behavior of their children. This type of emotion socialization has a substantial impact on children’s emerging ability to cope because contingencies either reinforce or punish a child’s display of specific emotions. In other words, parents are teaching their children what the parent considers appropriate and inappropriate ways of regulating emotions.
Contingencies are influenced by how well parents are able to regulate their own emotions. For example, parents who are good at regulating their own emotions will be able to control their own emotional reactions to their children’s displays of emotions and therefore react more rationally. On the other hand, parents who become upset when their children show emotions will react in a way that is influenced by their own emotions (e.g., parents showing their own anger when their children become angry, sad, etc.); these parents will then not be as emotionally available for their children. For example, if a child is angry and her parent yells at her in response to her anger, she will learn that yelling is an appropriate reaction to anger.
Research on contingencies typically identifies six types of reaction to a child’s unpleasant emotions. Unpleasant emotions are any emotion that a person does not enjoy experiencing, such as anger, sadness, and worry. The six types of contingencies can be classified as either supportive or unsupportive. Supportive reactions involve encouraging kids to express their emotions, helping kids learn how to change their negative emotions, and helping children learn to change the situation that lead to the unpleasant emotion.
One type of unsupportive reaction to a child’s unpleasant emotions is when parents dismiss or minimize those emotions. An example might be telling a child that he does not need to be sad or angry or telling a child that he is not really sad or angry. Parents often mean this type of reaction to be comforting, but it is often perceived by children as not acknowledging the truth of their emotions. The other two types of unsupportive reaction to a child’s unpleasant emotions involve parents punishing their children for showing unpleasant emotions or parents becoming upset themselves when their children display unpleasant emotions.
While contingencies can come from any external source in a child’s life, parents are the most important source of emotional learning in early childhood. As a result, when parents use unsupportive emotion socialization when their children are young, these children are likely to have more difficulty controlling their emotions in later years. Parents who use unsupportive emotion socialization are more likely to have children who struggle with anxiety and depression. This is true in children as young as the toddler years.
It can often be difficult for parents to regulate their own emotions when their children are in distress, but research on emotion socialization shows how important it is for parents to make the best effort possible, particularly if they have children with anxiety and/or depression. Therapy for anxiety and depression can include work to strengthen the relationship between parents and children, encouraging more open communication between them. Better communication and learning to regulate emotions can help both parents and children learn to be in control of their emotions instead of letting their emotions be in control of them.
Buckholdt, K. E., Parra, G. R., & Jobe-Shields, L. (2014). Intergenerational transmission of emotion dysregulation through parental invalidation of emotions: Implications for adolescent internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 23(2), 324–332. doi:10.1007/s10826-013-9768-4
Cassano, M., Zeman, J., & Sanders, W. (2014). Responses to children’s sadness: Mothers’ and fathers’ unique contributions and perceptions. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 60(1), 1–23. doi:10.13110/merrpalmquar1982.60.1.0001
Denham, S. A., & Kochanoff, A. T. (2002). Parental contributions to preschoolers’ understanding of emotion. Marriage & Family Review, 34(3–4), 311–343. doi:10.1300/J002v34n03_06
Eisenberg, N., Cumberland, A., & Spinrad, T. L. (1998). Parental socialization of emotion. Psychological Inquiry, 9(4), 241–273. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0904_1
Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., & Murphy, B. C. (1996). Parents’ reactions to children’s negative emotions: Relations to children’s social competence and comforting behavior. Child Development, 67(5), 2227–2247. doi:10.2307/1131620
Klimes-Dougan, B., & Zeman, J. (2007). Introduction to the special issue of Social Development: Emotion socialization in childhood and adolescence. Social Development, 16(2), 203–209. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2007.00380.x
Luebbe, A. M., Kiel, E. J., & Buss, K. A. (2011). Toddlers’ context-varying emotions, maternal responses to emotions, and internalizing behaviors. Emotion, 11(3), 697–703. doi:10.1037/a0022994
Malatesta, C. Z., & Haviland, J. M. (1982). Learning display rules: The socialization of emotion expression in infancy. Child Development, 53(4), 991–1003. doi:10.2307/1129139
Rogers, M. L., Halberstadt, A. G., Castro, V. L., MacCormack, J. K., & Garrett-Peters, P. (2016). Maternal emotion socialization differentially predicts third-grade children’s emotion regulation and lability. Emotion, 16(2), 280–291. doi:10.1037/emo0000142
Shewark, E. A., & Blandon, A. Y. (2015). Mothers’ and fathers’ emotion socialization and children’s emotion regulation: A within-family model. Social Development, 24(2), 266–284. doi:10.1111/sode.12095
Silk, J. S., Shaw, D. S., Prout, J. T., O’Rourke, F., Lane, T. J., & Kovacs, M. (2011). Socialization of emotion and offspring internalizing symptoms in mothers with childhood-onset depression. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 32(3), 127–136. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2011.02.001
Tillery, R., Cohen, R., Parra, G. R., Kitzmann, K. M., & Howard Sharp, K. M. (2015). Friendship and the socialization of sadness. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 61(4), 486–508. doi:10.13110/merrpalmquar1982.61.4.0486
Zeman, J., Cassano, M., & Adrian, M. C. (2013). Socialization influences on children’s and adolescents’ emotional self-regulation processes: A developmental psychopathology perspective. In K. C. Barrett, N. A. Fox, G. A. Morgan, D. J. Fidler, & L. A. Daunhauer (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulatory processes in development: New directions and international perspectives. (pp. 79–106). New York, NY: Psychology Press.