Putting on a 'Happy Face' for Kids Takes Emotional Toll on Parents

Worried parent
(Image credit: Kamira | Shutterstock.com)

Parents who hide their true emotions from their children, putting on an insincere "happy face," tend to feel bad about it afterward, a new study finds.

Researchers asked parents to remember times when they didn't feel great, but put on a "happy face" anyway when talking with their kids. Overall, parents felt that putting on a fake happy face decreased their sense of well-being and the quality of the bond they had with their kids, the researchers found.

It turns out that parents may experience "more pain than pleasure … when parents express more positive emotions than they genuinely feel and mask the negative emotions that they do feel when caring for their children," the researchers said in the study. [10 Scientific Tips For Raising Happy Kids]

The findings come from two surveys given to parents using Amazon's Mechanical Turk. In both surveys, the researchers asked parents about negative emotion suppression and positive emotion amplification, and how doing either shaped their emotional well-being, relationship quality and responsiveness to their children's needs.

"By examining the regulation of positive and negative emotions in tandem, our results can shed light on the unique effects of using each strategy,” lead study author Bonnie Le, a social psychologist at the University of Toronto, said in a statement.

In the first survey, 162 parents answered questions about past caregiving experiences. The parents were 35 years old, on average, and had children between ages 4 and 12. Each parent described three situations that had happened within the past four weeks, including a regular interaction with their child, a time they suppressed a negative emotion and a time they amplified how happy they felt.

Hiding negative emotions and overexpressing positiveemotions took an emotional toll on parents, the researchers found.

"For the average parent, the findings suggest when they attempt to hide their negative emotion expression and overexpress their positive emotions with their children, it actually comes at a cost: Doing so may lead parents to feel worse themselves," said co-author Emily Impett, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto at Mississauga.

In the second survey, a group of 118 parents answered free-response questions about their caregiving styles over a period of 10 days. When the parents felt challenged, they tended to suppress negative feelings and amplify positive feelings, the researchers found. But overall, the results were similar with the first survey, with "happy face" parenting leading to feelings of an emotional letdown afterward, they said.

"Parents experienced costs when regulating their emotions in these ways because they felt less authentic, or true to themselves," Le said. "It is important to note that amplifying positive emotions was relatively more costly to engage in, indicating that controlling emotions in ways that may seem beneficial in the context of caring for children can come at a cost."

Now that the researchers have an idea of how "happy face" caregiving affects parents, it would be useful to see how it affects children, they said.

"Future research should identify more adaptive ways for parents to regulate their emotions that allow them to feel true to themselves and contribute to the most joyful and optimal experiences of parenting,” Impett said.

The findings are detailed in the March 2016 issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.