Parents play a major role in how and how much a child’s anxiety is expressed, yet often without guidelines or tools. Society expects us parents to teach our children positive behavior, but when do we learn about socializing their emotions? If our kids misbehave or can’t sit still in class, we will hear pretty quickly from their teachers. But we are far less likely to hear concerns about a child whose feelings seem out of step—who blushes and stutters when called on in class, shuns playmates, or feverishly bites her nails.
“Emotion socialization” describes how children learn about feelings. Dr. Nancy Eisenberg, a psychologist at Arizona State University, studies how children understand emotions and learn when and how to express them, and she has found three crucial influences. First, children see how their parents deal with emotions. Have you ever sworn while angry, only to have your words parroted back by your young child? This learning-by-watching goes beyond words: Children are astute observers, carefully absorbing which emotions are or are not endorsed at home, how adults react to hard or happy news. They also see when their parents avoid emotions, whether because they are embarrassed or ashamed of their feelings or for other reasons.
Second, children learn about emotions by seeing how their parents react to their own outbursts or moods. Children want their parents’ approval and take messages like these to heart. So the child whose parent barks, “Stop that crying! Big boys don’t cry!” soon learns that only stoicism is acceptable, and emotions should be “stuffed” inside. Similarly, when parents say to children who are fretting, “Stop, there’s nothing to worry about,” they may conclude their worries don’t matter. That isn’t what the parents mean at all, of course—they want only to reassure. But in a blanket contradiction, that’s not necessarily what a child hears.
The third way children learn about emotions is through conversation maybe playing on playground equipment. This is possibly the richest and yet likely the rarest path to emotion learning. We don’t typically talk with children about emotions, but doing so can empower them to develop effective responses to their own and others’ feelings.
These three conduits—watching parents’ emotions, experiencing parents’ responses to children’s emotions, and talking about emotions—all hinge on the parents’ own understanding of the world of feelings. If nobody teaches us grown-ups to socialize emotions, then what our children learn may not be what we wanted to teach them.