If you routinely try to hide your emotional reactions from your kids, thinking you are protecting them, you may want to reconsider. It’s actually better — and less confusing — for kids to see their parents expressing frustrations rather than suppressing them. And it can help kids learn to process their own emotions better.

Parents shouldn't try too hard to hide their emotions; it can throw kids off.

Kids are notoriously good at reading adults’ feelings. And the researchers behind a new study set out to see whether and how kids would react when their parents intentionally suppressed their frustrations. “We wanted to look at how we suppress emotions and how that changes the way parents and kids interact,” said study author, Sara Waters, in a statement. “Kids pick up on suppression, but it's something a lot of parents think is a good thing to do.”

Parents and their kids come into the lab and carry out a task that involves building a Lego structure. The catch was that the parents couldn’t see the instructions and the kids couldn’t touch the Legos — so they had to cooperate very closely to build the structure. Before the Lego task, each parent had also carried out a stressful task in which they had to speak in front of an audience and receive negative feedback about their performance. When they carried out the Lego task with their children, half the parents were told to suppress their frustrations, and the other half to act naturally.

The researchers were interested in how the parents and kids reacted both emotionally and physiologically. To gauge emotion, they had graduate students watch tapes of the interactions and rate how positive and negative the interactions were. They also hooked up the participants to monitors to measure physiological markers of stress, like heart rate.

Suppressing emotion reduced the parents’ and the children’s positive feelings toward one another. “The act of trying to suppress their stress made parents less positive partners during the Lego task,” Waters said. “They offered less guidance, but it wasn't just the parents who responded. Those kids were less responsive and positive to their parents. It's almost like the parents were transmitting those emotions.”

Dads Are Different

They also found an interesting gender difference. Even though men who suppressed their feelings appeared less warm and less responsive, when fathers suppressed emotion their children did not show the same changes in behavior they did when mothers suppressed their stress and frustration. Despite the fact that their mothers didn’t display reductions in warmth or responsiveness, children's behavior became more negative anyway. This may be because kids are more used to seeing men suppress emotion, but less used to it in women, the authors suggest, adding that more work needs to be done before any real conclusions about the gender differences can be drawn.

Hiding your emotions is not the same thing as maintaining self control.

Overall, the results give support to the idea that parents shouldn't try too hard to hide their emotions; it can throw kids off. Children may not understand why feelings would need to be suppressed rather than expressed. Of course how parents express their frustration matters, too.

Hiding your emotions is not the same thing as maintaining self control. It's good for parents — and kids — to be able to keep a perspective and a handle on their feelings. It's less good to pretend the feelings don't exist.

“Kids are good at picking up subtle cues from emotions,” said Waters. “If they feel something negative has happened, and the parents are acting normal and not addressing it, that's confusing for them. Those are two conflicting messages being sent. Let them see the whole trajectory — including any setbacks,” she added. “That helps kids learn to regulate their own emotions and solve problems. They see that problems can get resolved. It's best to let the kids know you feel angry, and tell them what you’re going to do about it to make the situation better.”

The study was carried out by researchers at Washington State University; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of California, San Francisco. It was published in the journal, Emotion.