Your Anger Harms Your Baby Emotionally, Says Science

Years ago, I worked with a mom who was a self-proclaimed “yeller” — just like her mom and grandmother had been. In her eyes, yelling was part of parenting. She came to me because her 7-year-old son was having trouble at school. He was withdrawn and didn’t have many friends. It seemed to come out of nowhere, since he had always been talkative and outgoing in the past. However, during our family sessions, it was clear that there was a connection between the yelling and the boy’s emotions. When I asked the mom about her younger child, who was only 18-months-old at the time, her response was swift and cheery, “Oh, he’s the easy one. Nothing affects him.”

But, that might not have been true after all. According to new research from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, which appears in the March 2016 issue of Developmental Psychology, babies as young as 15-months-old make generalizations about anger-prone adults and take steps to avoid being a target of that anger.

To conduct their study, researchers evaluated the reactions of 270 15-month-old babies (a mix of boys and girls) when presented with two very different emotions from adults. First, each child sat across from a researcher who demonstrated how to play with a series of toys. Next, a second researcher (considered the “emoter”) reacted to the researcher demonstrating the toys in either a neutral way (calm voice) or a negative way (stern, frustrated voice). Then the babies were given a chance to play. 

The result: The babies who witnessed the angry outburst were less likely to play with the toy than the babies who witnessed the neutral reaction. Not only that, when the researchers reintroduced the previously negative emoter as neutral, the babies took the previous angry outburst into account and still avoided playing with the toy. The babies made snap judgments about the adults and were careful to avoid a second outburst.

This study sheds new light on how babies process and internalize the emotional responses of adults. Parents love to say that kids are resilient, and to some degree they can be, but that doesn’t mean that they let emotional outbursts roll off their backs. In fact, what looks like resilience or a child functioning as “the easy one” might very well be a child engaging in self-protective measures. 

So, what can you do to help keep your angry emotions in check? Start here:

1. Uncover your anger triggers. I spend a lot of time helping young children work through their feelings of anger, but sometimes the most difficult part of my job is helping their parents understand their own anger cues and triggers. Parenting is hard work and it’s natural to run thin on patience at times, but projecting anger onto small children only increases the stress level in the home. Children will internalize that anger and either imitate it or become withdrawn and anxious. I suggest keeping your own anger log. When you feel yourself losing patience and ready to yell, jot down what’s happening and how you’re feeling on an anger scale of 1 to 10 (10 being ready to explode). This is how to identify your triggers. Once you figure out your anger patterns, you can take steps to work through your emotions without yelling.

2. Get outside. Parents have a tendency to want to deal with frustrating situations right this very minute, as if letting things go for a moment is a bad thing. I find that, more often than not, our first reactions are not necessarily our best reactions. Getting outside for a few minutes can help calm everyone down and provide the space parents need to think something through. Take a quick walk with the kids, do some jumping jacks in the backyard, or go hunting for leaves and pebbles. Taking space from the anger-inducing event gives you time to process your emotions and come up with a plan to address the issue with your child in a calm way.

3. Learn to relax. Parenting can feel like a non-stop roller coaster at times, but we need to learn to exit the roller coaster and carve out time to practice relaxation techniques. I teach kids to use deep breathing to keep their anxiety and anger from bubbling over, and parents can benefit from this as well. I suggest visualizing a calming scene when practicing deep breathing. Breathe in for a count of four, hold for four, and release for a count of four. If doing this independently is difficult, download a mindfulness app to your phone to help you focus on your breathing. And if that doesn’t work, I highly recommend doing yoga as often as possible. Just this morning my husband said, “You’re really not concerned about this at all?” as our daughter stood spinning for what felt like five minutes with a play tent over her head. “I’ve done yoga for the past seven days,” I told him. “I don’t have a ton of concerns right now.” Maybe “Yoga Moms” should be the new trend in parenting.

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