As a parent, have you ever wondered why babies smile back at you when you smile at them? Have you watched a parent make silly faces while holding eye contact with their infant? I always smile when I witness youngsters responding to their parents by imitating their mouth movements and facial expressions. It is wonderful to see parents and their children experience this mind-body connection together, and sense their shared joy as the baby wiggles its fingers and toes, then its whole body and in turn, the parent responds with an ear-to-ear smile and laughter. And so their dance of connection and emotion continues.
Humans are social beings – we are wired to connect from the moment of birth. Our brains contain cells called mirror neurons which let us learn through imitation of behaviour and emotional states of other people. Mirror neurons allow us to respond to our own internal emotional states and external environmental and are thought to be responsible for our ability to experience connection and reflection as well as for the development of empathy. Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, and imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.
We experience empathy by interacting, observing and sensing the emotions of others. Researchers call this emotional contagion. Positive and negative emotions are shared unconsciously through facial expressions and body language, tone of voice, and behaviour, which trigger reactions in our brains that allow us to interpret those emotional cues and expressions as our own feelings and contributes to our emotional state.
Have you ever noticed how easily emotions are passed on from one person to another? The boss arriving at the office in a foul mood will dampen any fun and excitement in the workplace. At social events, the arrival of the person who is the ‘life of the party’ will change the dynamics and liven up the atmosphere almost immediately. People unconsciously mimic the emotional expressions of others, and feel the same emotions simply by exposure to them through social interactions or proximity. Our emotions can have a powerful ripple effect influencing those around us, often unconsciously.
Children are sensitive to the emotional cues and reactions of their parents, and learn through modelling and mirroring how their parents emotionally respond and react to them, their experiences and the environment. Studies have shown that infants as young as one month old sense when a parent feels strong emotions and are affected by their parents’ feelings or state of mind. Although infants are not verbal they do feel their mother’s stress. Research studies demonstrate that as soon as the child is held by their stressed mother, the child senses the physiological responses related to the mother’s emotional state and immediately feels the negative emotion in their own body. Children are more tuned into the emotional state of their parents than we give them credit for. Mothers who feel ongoing stress and overwhelm are often unaware of the significant negative impact on their children’s emotional state.
Most parents would agree that parenting is one of the toughest job on earth, and raising a family comes with considerable challenges and obstacles. With never-ending demands, parents find themselves experiencing stress more consistently and pervasively than ever.
As parents, the responsibility of raising children to become balanced, independent and healthy adults creates tremendous demands on their time, energy and focus. As responsible and conscious parents we do our best to balance the ongoing demands of our careers, managing our home, social activities, events, child care, self care and more. Unfortunately, the level of parental stress in our society is increasing. How do parents find time for emotional balance while juggling the demands of all the important components and expectations in their lives? It’s not easy, and often leads to parental stress and overwhelm.
Actions speak louder than words. Studies show that parental behaviour has more of an impact on children that what they are told to do. Children are observant, and highly attuned to the emotional states of their parents. They watch the interactions between their parents and other people and observe how they deal with their feelings, and handle stress. They soak in all that information like little sponges. They take note of subtle discrepancies between what their parents say and what their parents do. Although they may not have language for their experience they can sense something is wrong when their stressed mom puts on a smile to try and hide her feelings of anxiousness and overwhelm.
As parents, we need to understand that managing our own thoughts, feelings and behaviour is critical. Children model their parents’ behaviours, including those related to managing stress. Parents who deal with stress in unhealthy ways risk passing those behaviours on to their children.
If our goal is to empower our children to become the best they can be, it is critical that we, as parents, develop awareness of and language for our own emotional state. As we learn how to reduce and manage stress, we are more able to show up with conscious behaviours and an intentional emotional state as a way of being. If we want to support our children in becoming their best selves, it’s essential to be a positive role model and impart these qualities to them, even when you think they aren’t paying attention.
Simone Usselman-Tod provides support for highly motivated clients who are experiencing changes and challenges in their personal and professional lives. She provides resources and solutions focused on creating the positive changes they want to see in themselves and in those they care for.