Catching Emotions

“…it’s just emotion that’s taken me over…”

–          Emotion, Bee Gees

The baby books are keen on discussing “emotional contagion,” noting that babies, even in utero, can feel your emotions and tend to adopt those same emotions (just to add to our Mommy guilt!). And certainly you’ve experienced the contagion in your family life. One person has a bad day at work and suddenly, all family members are grumpy and upset about even the smallest things. There’s actually a physiological origin to emotional contagion. Researchers have studied facial muscles during emotional experiences and have found that the muscles in others’ faces mimic the one who is experiencing the strong emotion.[i] Because of this physical reaction, we can’t help but catch some of the emotions of others particularly when they are strong ones. The trick in dealing with this is to recognize that it’s happening when it’s happening and to actively work to change the family climate so that it doesn’t take over a whole Saturday, ruin plans, or escalate normally small, insignificant conflicts into big ones.

What can you do? When another family member catches a cold or flu, you take proactive steps not to catch the cold. In that case, maybe you take some Vitamin C, wash your hands more frequently, and get enough rest. Keeping it simple, here are some ideas for proactively stopping a contagious emotion that threatens to ruin a perfectly good day.

For Small Problems

Pleasantly surprise – I’m not sure anyone has been able to stay mad in our household when chocolate chip cookies are baking in the oven and the smell is wafting throughout the house. Turn things around by offering a pleasant surprise to change the physical and psychological atmosphere in the house when you recognize that the contagion is trying to spread and take hold. The best strategies involve multiple senses. Play some favorite happy music (gentle and calming or upbeat depending upon your audience), bake cookies or brownies, burn a candle with an enjoyable aroma, make a fire in the wintertime, pop popcorn, play a feel-good movie or show, or even go out for a treat.

Find something to laugh about – There are particular family jokes that get a laugh everytime (often they have to do with bodily functions – I know – sophisticated, eh?!). Injecting humor can be the simple remedy needed to turn around a climate in the household. Have a singing fish or whatever strikes your families’ fancy at the ready for just such occasions.

Go to your happy place – Peter Pan[ii] had his happy thoughts to help him find his way to Neverland. Just getting the family out of the house and to a place that makes all members’ happy typically can change the tone of the day. Maybe you enjoy going to the park (places in nature have an added benefit of nourishing your spirit), getting some ice cream, or taking a Sunday drive. Whatever you choose, make it simple and not complicated. You want to make sure that going out doesn’t add to the stress (from traffic jams, long lines, or poor service) but reduces it.

Do something for someone else – I must give full credit to my Mom for this one. She not only said this everytime I was feeling bad but also lived it herself. “Why don’t we make some soup and take it to our next door neighbor?” “Why don’t you just go visit Rosemary and ask her to tell you some stories or memories?” These were regular suggestions in my household. At the time, I didn’t like to admit it, but they really worked. Schools do this through service learning, involving students in service whether in the school or beyond, in the community and then, tying it back to the curriculum. First, it’s an authentic way to put social and emotional skills into practice. And second, it promotes empathy, perspective-taking (understanding another’s perspective), and gratefulness for your own circumstances. Doing something for another can happen just as easily at home. Writing a note for a family member who has been sad with a few words and a smiley face can be just enough to make someone happy and make the giver feel good.

Read a short story together – Reading a short book can take only a few minutes but, if it’s a good one, can take you into another world and produce emotions other than the worry or anger that is trying to take hold.

Get creative – Grab some crayons and a coloring book or some paints and a paintbrush and express. No thinking allowed. It can be mesmerizing and calming to sink into the rhythm of drawing or painting using whatever materials are at the ready. Make sure you have the intent to throw out whatever you produce since it’s about the process, not the product.

For More Serious Problems

Directly address the problem in small manageable steps – The aforementioned series of ideas work if the problems are small and everyone is just a bit grumpy. But when a problem is big and there are great worries and fears on the part of one or all members of the family, then the way to change the family climate also changes. Creating a happy environment and distracting from the problem just won’t be enough when tensions run high. Consider how you might quickly entertain the children for a time (if it’s a partner or both partners that are experiencing worries and fears) by popping in a favorite movie or bringing out a novelty toy and sequester yourself with your partner to really discuss the issues. What’s at the heart of your worries and fears? Are there worst case scenarios going through your brain that, with a little conversation and maybe some research, you can eliminate? How can you seek out more information so that you can take some of those worries off your plate? What supports can you seek out to help with the situation? What action can you take? Try to take small steps toward eliminating your worries even if it’s making a plan or a timeline to take action. How can you combine forces and work together to make things better? Even small steps forward will alleviate some of the stress since you are actively working together toward a solution.

Do something for someone else – This one works with big and small problems. When combined with directly addressing the problem, it’s a one-two punch for feeling better. The reason being that it promotes empathy and puts your own problems in perspective through experience.


Berenstein, S. & Berenstein, J. (2006). The Berenstein Bears hug and make up. NY: HarperFestival. A story about a day in which the whole Bear family was grumpy with one another until the end of the day when they realized how silly they all were.

[i] Hess, U., & Blairy, S. (2001). Facial mimicry and emotional contagion to dynamic emotional facial expressions and their influence on decoding accuracy. International Journal of Psychophysiology. 40 (2): 129-141.

[ii] Barrie, J.M. (1911). Peter and wendy. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing.


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