Family Tips

Your daughter comes home in tears. She can barely choke out words to describe the mean things some girls said to her on the school bus. You listen to her story and try to comfort her. If you’re really skilled, you’ll offer her attunement (Are You Okay? March 2014).

After a couple months practicing for his first driver’s license, your son fails the behind-the-wheel test at the motor vehicle department. On the way home, you sense his distress as he complains about the unfair examiner and how he deserved to pass. You try to comfort him.

Recent research suggests that there’s something else — something enormously helpful — that you can do that may reduce the intensity and duration of a child’s distress: coach your kids to identify and name the specific emotions they’re feeling during moments of emotional pain.

Studies have found that when people identify and specifically name their emotions, they are “less likely to be overwhelmed in stressful situations.”i That’s because when we use precise labels for our feelings, we understand more about what’s happening to us emotionally, which then can lead to identifying a smart (and healthy) course of action. Clearly labeled emotions become easier to regulate (“I’m sad” rather than “I feel bad,” or “I’m disappointed” rather than “I’m really bummed out”). Once we know the feeling we’re dealing with, we can tailor our response to it rather than just fall back on the customary habits we rely on in order to feel better (especially unhealthy habits like erupting into anger, turning to alcohol, bottling up the pain, bingeing on food, etc.)

People skilled at naming their feelings have been found to drink 40% less alcohol when stressed,ii and are 20% to 50% less likely to retaliate with verbal or physical aggression against someone who has hurt them.iii Impressive evidence exists that teaching school-aged children to expand their understanding and use of precise emotion words improves both their social behavior as well as their academic performance.iv

If we’re going to teach our kids to speak the language of emotions, we’re going to need to speak the language ourselves. It doesn’t require a huge lexicon; angry, sad, hurt, afraid, upset, disappointed, discouraged, guilty, and ashamed are the basics. Incorporate those words into your vocabulary, and when your kids are distressed, coach them to do the same.

i Kashdan, T.B., L.F. Barrett, P.E., McKnight. “Unpacking emotion differentiation: transforming unpleasant experience by perceiving emotion differentiation.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, February 2015 vol. 24 no. 1, pp.10-16. doi: 10.1177/0963721414550708.

ii Kashdan, T. B., P. Ferssizidis, R.L. Collins, & M. Muraven. “Emotion differentiation as resilience against excessive alcohol use: An ecological momentary assessment in underage social drinkers.” Psychological Science, 21, 2010. 1341–1347.

iii Pond, R. S., T.B. Kashdan, C.N. Dewall, A.A. Savostyanova, N.M. Lambert, & F.D. Fincham. “Emotion differentiation buffers aggressive behavior in angered people: A daily diary analysis.” Emotion, 12, 2012. 326–337.

iv Brackett, M. A., S.E. Rivers, M.R. Reyes, & P. Salovey. “Enhancing academic performance and social and emotional competence with the RULER feeling words curriculum.” Learning and Individual Differences, 22, 2012, 218–224.

Imagine that for twenty minutes, your 4-year-old has been fussing at the playground, crying and complaining and kicking sand at other children. Feeling growing irritation, you inch toward delivering a serious scolding. But you sense the watchful eyes of parents nearby, and so you suppress your feelings and handle the moment with faked aplomb.

Checking in on your daughter, who has been playing quietly in her room, you discover that her dresser drawers have been overturned and clothes are heaped everywhere. Your temperature races to a boil but before you react, you remember reading about never disciplining children from a place of anger. So you suppress your feelings and handle the moment with forced calm and equanimity.

Are we and our children better off when we suppress our negative emotions, or when we’re honest and transparent with our feelings?

Researchers at the University of Toronto studied this very question with 162 parentsi. They found that when parents suppressed their negative emotions — squelching feelings like upset, anger, and sadness — they reported a reduced sense of their own emotional well-being, poorer quality of relationship with their children, and less effective responsiveness to their kids’ needs. In other words, both parents and children seemed to pay a price when parents suppressed negative feelings. Why might this be?

Hiding our negative emotions decreases our sense of authenticity, defined as operating according to our core sense of who we are.ii Authenticity seems to be a critical component of personal well being, whether in our role as parents or any of our important relationships. By regularly suppressing negative feelings when we interact with our kids, we seem to lay the foundation for a less satisfying parenting experience.

In addition, suppressing negative emotion requires effort, which researchers suspect may deplete our emotional and energy resources. Depleted in this way, we may be compromised in our ability to effectively meet our children’s needs.

Better to strive for a modulated middle ground — without excessive volume or drama, without allowing our anger to burst forth suddenly and without restraint — so that we can say “I’m frustrated” or “I’m angry” or “I’m upset with you right now.” Our children seem better off — and so are we — when we bring emotional honesty to the challenging task of guiding our kids along a smart and healthy path.

i Le, Bonnie M. & Impett, E. “The costs of suppressing negative emotions and amplifying positive emotions during parental caregiving.” Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. March 2016 (42,3) 323336.
ii English, T., & John, O. P. “Understanding the social effects of emotion regulation: The mediating role of authenticity for individual differences in suppression. Emotion, 2013,13, 314-329. doi:10.1037/a0029847


Tell your college-age sons and daughters that more than 1,800 college students die from alcohol-related accidents each year, and nearly 600,000 are injured while drunk.i Tell them that over half a million are assaulted by another student under the influence, and 97,000 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.ii

“College drinking is sometimes still viewed as a harmless rite of passage,” says one researcher in the field of campus behavior. “That’s particularly dangerous given that research shows this age group is much more impulsive even when alcohol’s not involved.”iii Most at risk are incoming freshmen, student athletes, and those involved in fraternities and sororities.

The good news is that drinking behavior can be influenced by parents. In one study, those graduating high school seniors and college freshmen who believed that their parents knew and cared about their drinking drank less — and less often — than those who thought their parents didn’t know or care about their alcohol use.iv Another study found that parental monitoring, parental attitudes toward drinking, and parent-child communication all impacted students’ alcohol consumption.v Students whose parents raised the topic of alcohol throughout the college years — not just prior to freshman year — drank significantly less than classmates whose parents never raised the

Parents who want to be particularly proactive might also:

  • Pose questions that get youngsters thinking (while you listen rather than preach): How can you stay safe at a party with alcohol flowing? What will you do if a drunk friend gets behind the wheel and expects you to climb aboard? How will you decide how much alcohol is enough? How will you handle a roommate who drinks to excess? Do you know your school’s rules and consequences for alcohol violations?
  • Let them know that the norm on campuses is moderate — not abusive — drinking, so that they don’t imagine the only way to fit in is by getting drunk.
  • Acknowledge the force of peer pressure, and how simply holding a glass in their hand — whether it contains tonic or soda or sparkling water with a slice of lime — might mollify classmates who want everyone to get plastered along with them.
  • Suggest that adding ice to drinks will dilute alcohol’s potency and reduce the likelihood of intoxication.
  • Designate a responsible driver in advance if there’s going to be a need for transportation.

With 16 the average age teens start drinking, why wait until the approach of college to begin these conversations?

i Hingson, Ralph W., et al. “Magnitude of and trends in alcohol-related mortality and morbidity among U.S. college students ages 18-24, 1998-2005. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 2009 Jul; (16): 12–20.

ii ibid.

iii Dr. James Murphy, quoted in Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, October 2013.

iv Wetherill, R. & Fromme, K. “The effects of perceived awareness and caring, family motives and social motives on alcohol use by high school and first semester college students.” Psychology of Addictive Behaviors>/em>, 2007, 21, 147-154.

v Turrisi, Robert et al. (2013). “Examining the role of parents in college student alcohol etiology and prevention.” In: Interventions for addiction: Comprehensive addictive behaviors and disorders. Elsevier Inc., San Diego: Academic Press, pp. 865-873.

vi Doumas, Diana M., et al. “A randomized trial evaluating a parent based intervention to reduce college drinking.” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, July 2013, 45:1, 31–37.

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