Although it is Megan’s best friend’s birthday, Megan insists that she absolutely does not want to attend. When her parents ask her why, she states that she is afraid that she will do something stupid and that the other kids will laugh at her.
If Megan were your daughter, how would you respond?
Parental Meta-Emotions and Meta-Emotion Philosophies
How you react may depend on your parental meta-emotions and meta-emotion philosophies, introduced by Dr. John Gottman in 1996. He defined parental meta-emotions as the feelings and emotions that parents have about their own emotions and their children’s emotions.1 Let’s say that you or your child felt sad. If you experience fear or anxiety about your child or yourself feeling sad, the meta-emotion is anxiety because you feel anxious about feeling sad.
Parental meta-emotion philosophies refer to the general approach that parents have about their own and their children’s emotions.1 Studies indicate that there are two general parental meta-emotion philosophies: emotion dismissing and emotion coaching.2
Emotion Dismissing vs. Emotion Coaching
The emotion-dismissing philosophy describes parents who view negative emotions as harmful both in themselves and in their children. As a result, they tend to dismiss, avoid, and try to change negative emotions.2 In contrast, parents holding an emotion-coaching philosophy tend to approach negative emotions as a way to foster meaningful bonds and teaching. They tend to be more aware of their own and their children’s emotions, which they validate, and they support their children in finding ways to cope with their emotions.2
Influence on Anxiety Disorders in Children
In general, parental meta-emotion philosophies influence how children are socialized to experience, express, and regulate their emotions.1 Because impaired emotion regulation is a core mechanism in the maintenance and exacerbation of anxiety disorders, it stands to reason that parental meta-emotion philosophies also influence anxiety disorders in their children.3
To examine this, researchers at Macquarie University examined the parental meta-emotion philosophies of 109 parents,4 74 of whom had children with an anxiety disorder. The study results indicated that parents of children who had an anxiety disorder displayed less emotional awareness and emotion coaching than parents of children without an anxiety disorder. An emotion-coaching philosophy was associated with a greater likelihood of parents having a child without an anxiety disorder.
Emotion Coaching, Yet Child Has an Anxiety Disorder
It’s important to note that the study was cross-sectional, so the results don’t indicate that the degree of emotion coaching caused the participants’ children to have or not have an anxiety disorder. The development of an anxiety disorder is much more complex, and it is influenced by a large variety of biological and environmental factors. Instead, the results indicate the relationship. While emotion coaching doesn’t necessarily result in your child not having an anxiety disorder, it may help mitigate the effects of anxiety.
1. Gottman, J. M., Katz, L. F., & Hooven, C. (1996). Parental meta-emotion philosophy and the emotional life of families: theoretical models and preliminary data. Journal of Family Psychology, 10, 243–268.
2. Gottman, J. M., Katz, L. F., & Hooven, C. (1997). Meta-emotion: How families communicate emotionally. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
3. Gross, J. J., & Antony, M. M., & Roemer, L. (2011) Behavior Therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
4. Hurrell, K. E., Houwing, F. L., & Hudson, J. L. (2017). Parental meta-emotion philosophy and emotion coaching in families of children and adolescents with an anxiety disorder. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 45, 569–582.
Carol S. Lee is a clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, with a background in psychology from the University of California San Diego. Her research with Dr. Sarah A. Hayes-Skelton focuses on understanding the effectiveness of anxiety disorder treatments, especially in the context of engaging in behavior despite fear or anxiety. Carol and Dr. Hayes-Skelton co-author articles for Anxiety.org, blending social and clinical psychology in their work.