Have you ever noticed that when you are having a difficult day, your baby seems to be sharing a similarly unhappy mood? The same is true when you are enjoying a calm or emotionally level day. Your little one is likely to enjoy playing happily and feels quite content.
Our emotions are powerful indicators to our children. Emotions not only dictate our moods, they project our feelings on to those closest to us. Without ever uttering a word, the youngest of children can perceive if we are happy, nervous, calm or distressed. Our children sense our feelings and react based on our emotional actions. Despite a feigned smile, body language, facial expressions, attentiveness and the way you perform routine functions all let your baby know how you’re really feeling.
Parents represent the largest source of security and comfort for their children. Children rely on their parents to teach them and offer comfort and support. A parent is also one of the strongest emotional role models a child will have in the first five years of his life.
The Signs They See
Whether as a parent you are under extreme amounts of stress, exceptionally happy or having a typical day, your emotions are demonstrated in the most subtle of ways to your children. As a new mother, Linda Rabagliati, of Algonquin, Ill., learned that even young children can tell how their parents are feeling in the tone of their voices, the way they carry themselves and in the way they address them. “I was so stressed out about trying to be a ‘perfect’ parent that we both were a bundle of nerves!” says Rabagliati.
Rabagliati eventually learned that when she was enjoying a pleasant day, she’d be apt to smile more at her baby, communicate in a calm tone of voice and exhibit her mood in her overall behavior. “Once I finally relaxed, my daughter was more at ease as well,” she says. “Conversely, when I was having a difficult day, I’d seem distant or irritable, preoccupied or be physically demonstrative of my agitated feelings,” she says.
Even though parents never intend on their moods transferring to their children, sharing emotions is a natural process. Children raised in households with high stress levels learn to feed off the stress. A study performed in 2000 by researchers at the University of Chicago concluded that babies who are only a few months old can sense agitation and begin to display similar emotions to those of their caregiver. Russell R. Posey, Ph.D., supervised that study and explains that “three out of five of these children experienced higher levels of stress and anxiety as preschoolers and had a harder time integrating with their peers.”
The Physical Cues Your Child Reads
It is important that we understand that because of their limited verbal communication skills, children under the age of 18 months react to the emotions of their parents in many ways. Tension will be evident in their daily habits. Posey’s findings also indicate that a child trying to react to and cope with his parent’s emotions might begin having trouble falling or remaining asleep, displaying trouble eating or seem fussier than normal. “If a parent or caregiver is not calm, [is] preoccupied or over-stressed it reflects in subtle ways to a child,” says Posey. “The child can notice your feelings in the way he is held and carried.”
Pamela Biegler, a psychologist in Little Rock, Ark., explains that our emotions come through in the simple act of picking your child up from the floor. “Your baby will notice the quicker swooping motion consistent with tension instead of a slower movement associated with calmer emotions,” says Biegler, who is also the mother of five children. “Children will also sense your preoccupation when you communicate with them.”
Your speech pattern and reduced eye contact will be immediate indicators to your baby. Babies and toddlers have an amazing ability to detect these feelings without the conscious understanding of what they are experiencing. Even though they have yet to develop their verbal language skills, they will process the emotions of their parents.
“As a nursing mother I learned that I experienced a change in my breast milk when I was under an unusual or prolonged amount of tension,” says Terry Walker of Palos Heights, Ill. This change, even though it may have seemed slight or virtually non-existent to Walker, did not go undetected by her baby.
“Your child might not eat as much or appear fussy during feedings as a result of the difference,” says Michelle Applegate, a registered nurse from Addison, Ill. Walker’s child was one of many who are also able to detect the tension in the way he was being held during nursing. “Because you are feeling preoccupied or weighed down, your attention will not be completely focused on your child,” says Applegate. “You might unconsciously alter your stance, seem rushed or less at ease to your child during feedings.”
Babies whose parents are calm and relaxed or able to channel their emotions in order to alleviate stress also are affected by their parent’s emotions. “These children sense you’re at ease even during routine activities such as diaper changes and driving to the store,” says Biegler. Your relaxed body language and patience is clearly conveyed to children of all ages. They will smile more and mimic their parents’ moods. They will coo as you read to them and play contentedly in their playpens. A baby mimicking his parents’ pleasant mood might seem more playful at ed and bath time or display increased confidence in his increasing abilities.
What Emotions Do You Want to Show?
Applegate advises that one of the best ways to avoid transferring your stress or tense emotions to your baby is taking time for yourself. “Try taking a deep breath before picking your baby up out of the playpen,” she says. “Reserve a quiet moment for yourself right before nursing.” If you’re feeling weighed down and need to find a way to project different emotions to your kids, try a change of scenery. Busy mother of two Diane Fritz of Crystal Lake, Ill., found that burning off excess nervous physical energy helped channel her emotions and keep her family calm. “When I felt overwhelmed, or before feedings, I’d take the baby out for a relaxing walk or trip to the local park,” says Fritz. “Not only did my baby appreciate my calm state, he reflected a similar calm attitude.”
Taking a few moments to read or play with the family pet together also has a calming effect. It gives everyone a chance to spend some peaceful time together and share a memorable moment.
Of course we can never shelter our young children from every unpleasant mood or irritability, but we can alleviate some of them. Some of the life lessons you’ll teach your child are learning how to cope with his feelings, retain control over his emotions and how to adjust to the many emotions and situations he’ll encounter later in life.
Keeping in mind that what you’re feeling generally becomes what your young child is feeling will help you understand his moods and actions. If you have a better concept of why your baby may be exhibiting certain behaviors, you’ll be able to adeptly help him revel in a pleasant mood or out of an unhappy one.