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Emotional expressiveness in the family

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Have you ever stopped to think about how you express your emotions? Do you express your pleasant emotions the same way you express less pleasant ones, like sadness or anger? What message are you giving your children? That we should express our good or not so good emotions, giving them room for self-regulation, without shame or avoidance? Or are you teaching them that there is only one type of emotions that should be shared and expressed?

Emotions play a key role in how we learn to function cognitively in the social world, influencing emotional expression and experience about ourselves and others. Emotional expressiveness is a privileged means of communication, playing an important role in the regulation of children's behaviour, in the relationship of children with their peers.

Emotions are basic elements of social interactions throughout life. Firstly, they are a source of information, both for those who communicate and those who are receiving the communication. Secondly, emotions are an effective part of social interaction, as a dynamic process in creating the relationship with others. While the drive system aims to regulate the internal conditions of the individual, i.e. to meet basic needs such as hunger and thirst, emotions seek to regulate the relationship of the individual with the external environment, whether it is in approaching certain objects, people, situations or to move away from them.

Emotions affect attention, modify behaviour and activate memories. Physiologically, emotions activate biological responses that include muscle tone, facial expression and tone of voice, increasing nervous system activity and endocrine activity which, in turn, affects new behaviours.

The family is possibly the first context in which the child learns how emotions are typically expressed, the messages they are intended to convey and the different ways of managing them. The emotional climate of the family affects children's emotional reactivity as well as the quality and security of the relationships with the different elements of the family. Parents' reactions to children's emotions, their emotional beliefs, discussions about emotions with children, expressive styles and the modification and selection of situations organise parental behaviour in parent-child interactions and guide children in their own emotional experience. Parental socialisation of emotions is a multidimensional and comprehensive process, associated to emotional capacities with an impact on social-emotional maturation and on the development of emotional and social competencies.

Parents influence the socialisation of emotions through their emotional expression, although not always directed to their children, showing children, through modelling, when it is or not appropriate to express emotions and how to interpret emotion-related situations.

The family's emotional expressiveness is a critical component within the family framework being considered an indirect method of socialising emotions.

The emotional expressivity of a family shows variations in the frequency and intensity of the manifestation of its discrete emotions. Each family member tries to conduct and influence the way others experience their emotions, which can lead to suppression, modification (intentional or unintentional) or intensification of emotions.

The typical pattern of emotional expressivity of a family impacts on the development of children's schemas in two distinct ways: on the one hand, through the typical style presented, which gives the child bases to understand, define and integrate notions on how he should and can express his emotions. On the other hand, the specific events, that is, non normative ones within the family context allow the child to integrate new ways of experiencing and expressing emotions, preparing her to deal with and interpret different social situations and facilitating her adaptation.

The typical pattern of emotional expressivity of a family does not mean that all elements present the same styles, i.e., among the elements of a family there may be a variability in parental styles, the emotional expressivity of a family may vary according to the contexts and also, families may present different patterns of responsiveness to behaviours and situations.

The attributions given to emotional expressiveness contribute to the formation of intra- and interpersonal schemas, relating to the value assigned to emotions and their expression, beliefs about emotional regulation and emotional expression, baseline emotional states and the use of power through emotional expressiveness.

Positive emotional expressivity is associated with social competence, positive emotionality, emotional understanding, pro-social behaviours and improved levels of self-esteem. Children from families that regularly express positive emotions are more social, more popular among peers and psychologically adjusted, knowing how to experience emotions according to contexts with lower levels of aggression and greater resilience in the face of stressful situations.

Expression and socialisation of negative affect correlate with how the individual deals with the expression of anger. deals with the expression of anger, showing that emotional expression is not only dependent on personality characteristics or on characteristics of the situation per se , but that it refers to experiences that occurred within the family, during childhood, through the imposition of norms and beliefs. In this sense, children who have a family relationship demarcated by the absence of support or who endure higher levels of punishment, may present avoidant coping strategies.

A moderate level of negative emotions may be beneficial for the child's emotional development, whereas a low, extreme level may limit the child's opportunities to learn to regulate emotions, leading to a greater emotional deregulation and less understanding of the limits of his behaviour.

Parents with higher emotional training skills show greater awareness of their own and their children's emotions, considering emotions important and natural and therefore an opportunity to connect emotionally, to reflect and to teach. In contrast, parents with a "disapproving" attitude show less concern about emotional expression, considering emotions as disruptive and dangerous, and viewing the expression of negative emotions as a behaviour to be extinguished.

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