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18 June 2020

What is Emotion Socialization?

Recently, researchers have been discussing the importance of emotion socialization in military families. Emotion socialization is the way that parents educate their kids to experience, manage, and express their emotions. In other words, emotion socialization is the “messages” that parents send, whether intentionally or unintentionally, about emotional experiences. It tells kids what emotions are “good” and “bad,” which emotions are okay to express, and how to actually go about expressing them. For instance, when a child is angry at a friend on the playground, how should the child respond? Should they go get an adult to help or is it okay to hit the other kid who made them upset? How the parent teaches their child to respond is part of the emotion socialization process and will inform the child how to behave in situations that may invoke anger.

The emotion socialization process is important for a couple of reasons. First, through the emotion socialization process, parents pass on their values, knowledge, and skills to their children. For example, children may be paying attention to the emotions behind their parent’s words (i.e., it’s not what you say but how you say it) while also figuring out whether a parent values certain emotions over others (“It’s okay to show pride, but it’s not okay to express hurt feelings”). As a result, a key process of parenting occurs when children begin to reflect and express similar values and behaviors to their parents. The second reason why emotion socialization is important is that unhealthy emotion socialization behaviors are related to a variety of negative child outcomes like more depression, hyperactivity, and aggression. So, what are emotion socialization behaviors?

There are a variety of emotion socialization behaviors, but for simplicity I will only describe a handful that are easy to recognize. When parents try to change the intensity or type of emotions they are personally experiencing (i.e., emotional regulation), they are also emotionally socializing their children to do similar things. Emotion regulation can take many forms, including helpful (e.g., exercising, seeking social support, reframing a situation in a positive way) and unhelpful practices (e.g., substance abuse, aggressive outbursts). Other emotion socialization behaviors fall under the category of how parents deal with their children’s emotions. These behaviors can be positive, such as helping the child problem-solve or express their emotions in a healthy way; other behaviors can be more negative like punishing the child (e.g., telling the child to quit crying or they will be grounded) or minimizing their experience (e.g., “It wasn’t that bad, quit acting like a baby”). Recent evidence suggests that negative emotion socialization behaviors are related to worse outcomes for children such as more depression or aggression. Therefore, we would like to suggest some things that parents can do to emotionally socialize their children in a beneficial way:

  1. Practice helpful emotional regulation strategies. Parents’ emotions can affect how they treat their children. As a result, parents who practice positive emotion regulation techniques may be better prepared to help their children. Taking parenting education classes, practicing self-care, being mindful, and attending therapy could all be helpful ways to address personal emotional challenges, which in turn may help your children learn positive emotional regulation techniques.
  2. Try to avoid things like minimizing a child’s emotional experiences or punishing them for emotional outbursts. Instead, helping children problem-solve or calmly talking through their emotions may be more helpful in addressing issues without leading to poorer outcomes. Inevitably, parents will feel frustrated, tired, and even angry towards their children when they have an emotional outburst, and the goal of this research is not to tell parents that they should or should not feel a certain way in the midst of those situations. However, research does indicate that how parents respond to their children’s emotions can impact child outcomes. So, it may be helpful to avoid quick reactions to children’s behaviors. If a child does something wrong, wait and calm down before explaining what the child could had done differently.
  3. Sometimes, parents need a little extra help. Wanting more education or desiring to learn better ways to communicate and manage emotions is not a bad thing! There are a variety of programs noted in Hajal & Paley (2020) that can work with parents and children to provide education and skills training to benefit the whole family.

Parents have a tremendous responsibility when it comes to raising their children and Military REACH’s purpose is to provide as much information and resources as possible to assist families in the military. Please, check out the sources for this family article to learn more about emotion socialization and its influence on children.

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