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Kids pick up on parents’ stress


Parents may think they are protecting their children by hiding life’s stresses, but a new study suggests that children pick up on these cues and become stressed themselves.

Being an adult carries a multitude of stresses and parents may try to keep their anxieties to themselves. However, a new study in the Journal of Family Psychology indicates that children may pick up on their parents’ suppressed stress, which then increases their own levels of stress.1

Investigators used 107 dyads of parents and children aged 7 to 11 years. Each dyad participated in a laboratory visit. Parent and child were separated, and the parent was subjected to a standardized laboratory stressor that activates the body’s primary stress series. Before the parent and child were reunited, the parent was randomly assigned to either act naturally or to hide emotions from the child. Then the pair completed 2 interaction tasks and a conflict conversation. Investigators observed the interaction behavior and measured sympathetic nervous system (SNS) responses.

Three key findings were:

·      Pairs with a suppressing parent appeared less warm and less engaged during the interaction than the control pairs.

·      Mothers who were suppressing their SNS responses influenced their child’s SNS responses

·      Fathers who were suppressing their SNS responses were influenced by their child’s SNS responses.

Because the world is currently a very stressful place and parents can be facing many anxieties such as how bills will get paid, whether the family is safe, and what happens if someone gets sick, it’s highly likely that parents will try and keep their stress suppressed, in an attempt to not worry their child. This study’s conclusions suggest that children are likely to pick up on that stress and become stressed themselves.


1.    Waters SF, Karnilowicz HR, West TV, Mendes WB. Keep it to yourself? Parent emotion suppression influences physiological linkage and interaction behavior. J Fam Psychol. April 23, 2020. Epub ahead of print. doi: 10.1037/fam0000664

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