Research shows kids pick up on our stress, even when we try to hide it.
I got up early to get some work done before my husband and daughter awoke. There was a puddle on the floor in front of the sink — jerry-rigged pipe not doing the job — so I spent a minute cleaning that up. Then the dog needed to go out and I transferred the darks, still wet in the washer, to the dryer, and by the time I got to work, my daughter was pouring a bowl of cereal, my husband was on a call, and I’d received some last-minute editorial comments that needed my attention before I could get to the project due around lunchtime.
My husband — temporarily working at home – had dibs on our home office, so I set up shop on the dining room table next to the teen who was working on algebra. She was calm, mostly quiet except for a camp song she was humming off and on.
Me? I was feeling frayed by 9 a.m. When I try to weave my thoughts into a single stitch, my ideas unravel. Focus is fleeting. But my stress, that’s coming in loud and strong. It feels like I’m vibrating with it as I watch the clock tick closer to my work deadline. My neck feels tight and I want to cry when I delete a portion of the piece because I’m not paying attention.
But I keep quiet. Trying to calm, but feeling angry and impatient. I comb my fingers through my hair and stare at my computer screen, seeing my tight expression in the reflection.
Then, I feel the table start to jiggle. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice my daughter is now tapping her foot. Her leg bounces. Then she’s playing her hair, pulling it up and dropping it loosely around her shoulders. Then she sighs, throws her pencil down stomps away from her algebra.
“Ugh. I’m so stressed,” she says.
I think she got that from me.
Though I try to play it cool and calm around here, stress can spread — infecting our kids even when we’ve tried to minimize their exposure, according to new research from the Journal of Family Psychology.
In the study, researchers watched kids and parents and found that when mothers tried to hide their stress or other emotions, kids felt in their bodies anyway, without knowing exactly what was wrong.
Kids pick up on things. When we downplay our stress or tell children everything is fine when we don’t feel fine, our children sense that. They know something is up, said Sara Waters, an assistant professor at Washington State University and one of the study’s authors.
And families tend to be less warm and engaging with each other when members are suppressing or hiding their feelings, particularly when discussing tough topics or conflicts, according to the research.
I’ve noticed this kind of contagion before. Sometimes I’ll feel my mood shift from calm and easy to uptight and edgy when my teen walks tugging the drama of middle school with her. If I’m not paying attention, my stress will rise to match hers.
Or my husband will be restless and worrying over something that happened at work, but his mood improves when he comes home and is surrounded by our better feelings.
And during these days when we are all working at home, stress is popping like a pinball.
We don’t want to overburden our kids and contribute to the stressful feelings they are already experiencing, but acting like things are easy is only contributing to the stress around here, instead of making it better.
So, I fessed up. I sat down with my daughter and explained in basic (and teen-appropriate) language, that I was feeling stressed by trying to find ways to help her keep her studies up while meeting my work deadlines when the routines were so different in our house now. And, I reaffirmed another truth. Though it’s a stressful time, we are doing OK. We can feel uptight and manage our stressed feelings and feel better.
She’s a teenager, so she knows stress too. She told me she’d felt something was wrong. She worried that I was angry at her. That made her feel anxious.
Without realizing it, our stress spreads to those around us creating a more stressful environment for everyone.
But we can interrupt this cycle by doing these three things.
Catch your feelings. Recognize what’s going on in your body – tension in your neck or a stomachache, for example. Perhaps it’s recognition your mind is wandering, or you feel tired. Just notice. Don’t judge.
Identify the emotion behind the physical sensation. Naming your feeling can help diffuse its intensity.
Then talk or write it out. This doesn’t have to be a long drawn out conversation or a 20-page essay, but it’s OK to say “I’m feeling a lot of pressure because I need to get this work project done” or to express your emotions on the page. Get specific on the page about what’s behind the feeling.
By noticing, naming, and sharing our stress and emotions rather than suppressing them, we can neutralize the stress and keep them from infecting our kids and others. We’ll feel more relaxed and empowered too.
After a few minutes talking with my daughter, we both were more calm and connected. She went back to algebra. I got back to work, finishing up my project with minutes to spare.