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Attention Parents: Your Emotions Are Contagious

Attention Parents: Your Emotions Are Contagious

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Updated on Oct 17, 2011

To stay healthy, people will do everything short of quarantining themselves to avoid getting coughed on, sneezed on, or breathed on by the sickly. As a parent, you’re probably well aware of how quickly contagious diseases like the flu can travel through a family—nay, a neighborhood. Teachers notice the same thing when they see student after student calling in sick until the class is but a mere figment of the imagination.

Research has also shown that in the workplace, one negative employee can spoil the bunch. A negative outlook on anything, whether it’s the administration, a client, or a department, can affect the morale of everyone around.

So what does this have to do with families? Believe it or not, the same research that shows how a negative attitude can “catch on” in families just as easily as it does in the office.

How Does It Work?

Jan Comeau, a licensed clinical social worker in Prairie Village, Kansas, explains that this concept is a natural outgrowth of cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT therapists believe that how one acts is always a reaction to what one thinks and believes. Children growing up in a negative family will naturally believe that they are at fault. For example, when a family member screams, a young child has no way of knowing what that’s directed towards. Rather than ascribing it to stressful experience at work or a chemical imbalance in the brain, the child begins to think of himself as the “bad” person, and he will naturally begin to act in the way that he believes he’s perceived.

In some ways, this makes a lot of sense. Think about the last time you were under severe stress, and took on a negative attitude. Did everyone around you seem to behave more negatively? Were you less able to provide constructive help, instead opting for angry retaliation? As a parent, these actions can drastically affect the mood of your child.

Just the Facts

·      It is more likely for children to catch negative emotions from their parents than it is for parents to catch negative emotions from their children.

  • Women are more likely to catch negative emotions than men.
  • Depression in children may be linked to their parents’ negative emotions.
  • Parents under a lot of stress tend to raise children who suffer from stress as well.
  • The following characteristics are associated with stress: large number of people in the family, stress from the workplace of one or more family members, and having an adolescent in the home.

What About Positive Emotions?

Fear not, the flip side to these studies is that positive emotions can be “caught” just like negative emotions. While most contagious emotions are usually negative and tend to last longer, we’ve all seen how one person can completely turn around the negative attitude of a group with a bit of optimism and kindness.

Tips for Parents

  •  Let your child know if you are undergoing stress that has nothing to do with them. For example, if you have a headache when they come home from school, tell them about it. Warn them that you may be a bit grouchier than normal, but that it’s not their fault. This will minimize the contagiousness of your negative emotions.
  • Educate your family members about what to do when one is upset. “You can’t always change the person who is emoting,” says Corneau. “You need to teach others in your family to recognize that it’s not them, what people do and say isn’t their fault, even if they’re the receiver of all of it.”
  • Corneau emphasizes that some children are more sensitive than others. Zero in on a child who strongly picks up energies in the house, even if they are not directed at her. Help her learn to identify when people are in a bad mood, and try to support her through the bad days of other family members.
  • If one person’s mood seems to be contagious on a regular basis, support her and encourage her to get help. This might include seeing a therapist or trying to fix the issues that are causing the negative emotions (e.g., changing jobs, switching classes, finding new friends).
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