Allowing kids to embrace big emotions is good parenting—and it’s science

As parents, few things are more heartbreaking than witnessing our children in emotional pain—whether it’s a tantrum, extreme sadness or a bad case of the “no’s!” It’s only natural to want to help them feel better fast, but a new study out of UC Berkeley suggests allowing kids to feel bad is better than telling them to cheer up—as feeling pressured to “turn a frown upside down” may just result in a deeper funk.

In a press release about the findings, senior author Iris Mauss, an associate professor of psychology at UC Berkley, noted the way parents respond to their children’s emotions may be predictors of mental wellness for those children down the line.

“We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health,” Mauss said. “Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you're not giving them as much attention.”

According to the researchers, people who commonly resist their dark emotions can end up feeling more psychologically stressed than people who allow bad feelings to exist and clear up over time.

Specifically, people who accepted their feelings of sadness, disappointment and resentment instead of judging or denying them reported fewer mood disorder symptoms than those who were critical of their bleakest feelings, even after six months.

The study has big implications for parents, as the researchers suggested we should support our kids as they experience a range of feelings—and we should avoid urging them to move on from a dark emotion before they are ready.

This might mean talking more about why our children are sad than how we could cheer them up.

“By asking parents about their attitudes about their children's emotions, we may be able to predict how their children feel about their emotions, and how that might affect their children's mental health,” said Mauss.

The researchers plan to expand their work to look at how upbringing impacts a person’s ability to accept the emotional ups and downs of life.

In the meantime, The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning Vanderbilt University suggests steps parents can take to help our kids understand and accept a range of emotions. These include:

1. Taking care of ourselves: Knowing when we are feeling overwhelmed and asking for help when we need it shows our kids that it’s OK to accept our emotions. 

2. Role-modeling expressing feelings in healthy ways: As an example, in a moment of anger, you may say, “Mommy is feeling really frustrated because she spilled coffee all over herself! I am going to count to five and then go change.” 

3. Talking about feelings: Even babies can benefit from exposure to the vocabulary of emotions. When children develop a “feelings vocabulary” that they can use to communicate what they are feeling and experiencing, they are better equipped to understand and accept a whole range of complex emotions. 

The experts at Vanderbilt suggest that the social-emotional skills children develop in the first two years are ones they will use and build on for the rest of their lives—so it’s never too early to teach your little one that it’s perfect OK to feel bad sometimes.

Heather Marcoux is the News Editor for Motherly and mom to one little boy. A former television journalist, Heather lives in Canada with her husband, son and a foursome of adorable pets.

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