#NormalizeLadyRage meets Dev. Psych: Disappointment Task Edition

First off, if you’re interested in feminist pop culture intersections, witty literary and pop culture commentary worthy of a Jane Austen-composed dialogue sequence, on fleek sweater sets, and just the very best link round-ups the internet has to offer, then you need to subscribe to the Two Bossy Dames newsletter.  Seriously. It’s. The. Best.


With that in mind, their recent newsletter examined the issue of emotional expression in American women and how the spectrum of appropriate feminine feeling is restricted when the needle approaches anger and/or rage. Many women chimed in with their own experiences in response to their missive, noting how their repertoire for expressing anger was not as well developed as their capacity for masking their frustration, irritation, and angst.


And it was that observation of feminine fluency in masking our anger with positive affect that brought me back to a pivotal study from my own field of developmental psychology.

Before I get to that, though, I also want to point out that women certainly do not hold the lion’s share of emotional camouflage in our American culture. Men absolutely encounter similar biases and pressures for masking their emotions, although these trend more towards sadness and empathy than anger. So this is my nod that both genders encounter cultural emotional molding that can be restricting–today, though, I’m focusing one particular finding and considering what it means for women today.

One of the key components of human development is learning to regulate our emotions. It’s an essential skill for integrating into any group of human beings, and there’s plenty of evidence to show that breakdowns in emotional control hold predictive power for developmental issues, like mental health challenges and/or aggressive reactionary styles. This capacity for controlling our emotional expression interacts strongly with our cultural experiences and our reinforcement histories–meaning that different cultures are embedded with different emotion regulation ‘rules.’

Display Rules embody these cultural distinctions, and are defined as the formal and informal cultural rules for when, where, and how emotions should be expressed. In American culture, one deeply-ingrained and early-emerging display rule is the ability to mask disappointment when receiving a gift.

The Disappointment Task was designed specifically to test this display rule. This experiment involves three main components:

  1. Children as young as three are brought into a lab setting and rank a series of prizes from most to least preferred (and the prizes range from awesome, like cool stickers, to lame, such as a broken baby rattle or 1 baby sock).
  2. The experimenter has the child complete a number of ‘filler’ tasks, such as math problems or coloring.
  3. The child is then told that they earned the prize, but their LEAST preferred prize (i.e., the broken rattle) is awarded to them, rather than their MOST preferred prize. Their emotional reaction to the lame prize is then code for how well their disappointment is masked, including whether the child smiles and says thank you.*

*Just FYI that, after the disappointment masking is observed and coded, the child is told that a mistake was made and they leave with their MOST preferred toy. We’re not monsters!

The astonishing aspect of this experiment is how early children demonstrate their knowledge of this Display Rule and are able to effectively mask disappointment. Children as young as THREE YEARS OLD are able to smile and say thank you for an entirely awful prize.

More relevant to the observations of the Two Bossy Dames’ piece, GIRLS show earlier and stronger proficiency in masking their anger and disappointment than boys do.

This reveals that the ability to mask uncomfortable emotions, such as anger or frustration, emerges earlier and stronger for girls than boys, which naturally begs the question: Why?

There are many hypotheses explaining this phenomenon, and the most widely accepted argues that girls are more likely than boys to be culturally encouraged towards behavior that MAINTAINS RELATIONSHIPS–which is an explanation that resonates with my own experiences and with many of the women who responded with their own experiences of #NormalizeLadyRage.

American culture emphasizes the feminine ability to help secure human connection, intimate or otherwise, and the expression of feminine anger is still often seen as a vehicle for rupturing these relationships (case in point–Beyoncé’s angry lyrics were interpreted as a sure sign of an impending divorce, rather than as a method of communication that led to a resolution of relational difficulty).


Given this phenomenon, I feel one solution for women who feel encased by their inability to express their anger without being branded as crazy, menstruating, or a bitch is one that is simple, but will require a slow burn:

We need to start using anger to maintain relationships.

Let’s turn our role within culture on it’s head–Anger is a form of communication, and if used with intention and with the purpose of attaining a resolution, it can advance human connection. We just need to remind America of this basic emotional fact.

Anger can build connection as much, if not more so, than acquiescence. Anger is a keystone to sincere intimacy.

Anger, in other words, is a good thing and everyone (women included) deserves to include it in their emotional repertoire.

Thanks to Rebecca Solnit, Beyoncé, RiotGrrls, and Sleater Kinney (oh, and so, so many others) for starting this discussion again and again–now let’s get to work!








The Parenting Maelstrom: 3 Teens, 1 Home, Infinite Hormones

This is a stock photo.  If it were my family, one of the children would be trying to push the other into the surf. With more eye make-up on.

In our family, we have 3 growing and healthy teens (okay, technically one isn’t a teen until August, but whatever–the hormonal unrest started long ago, so I’m lumping her in with the other two).  This makes for a definite challenge in the parental realm as we try to navigate the clutches of puberty, neurological growth, societal pressures and, God help us, social media access.  And that’s along with, as my 94-year-old Grandma would say when I watched General Hospital as a teen at her house, “All the smut on television.”

I haven’t figured much of this out, yet, and seem to live on a wing and a prayer most days (It is a truth universally acknowledged that your Developmental Psychology Ph.D. does not keep you from crying when one of your kids yells “I hate you” right to your face. Or from wanting to yell something equally nasty back in the heat of the moment).

Parenting teens is hard work, much like any form of care-giving, parenting or otherwise, is.  The biggest  challenge for me lately has been to step back as the co-leader of the family and check my compulsive need to address any disrespect or noncompliance. When my children were younger, I felt rather confident in administering the checks and balances of my parental realm. My children needed an authority figure, and my husband and I enacted that role with as much consistency as we could provide.

And then puberty hit, and our children started thinking differently, feeling differently, and seeing the world differently.  Authority no longer had as much power or derived as much adherence as it once did.  Instead, we now find ourselves embarking on the long and bumpy road towards equality. Granted, we won’t hit it until our children are out of the house and independent adults, but the seeds of our children’s independence are being sown now, as young teens grasping for freedom while still within the safety of our home.

And although I navigate this path better some days than others, the ultimate key skill I feel I’ve had to develop more and more is a basic one: Emotion Regulation.

Emotion regulation, or emotion control, is a core skill we begin to develop as young infants. It is the ability to inhibit emotional impulses and engage in more planful behavior surrounding our emotional responses. In particular, learning how to regulate anger and disappointment is a necessity for navigating any social group.  As young children, we hopefully learn when we are younger how to tell someone what is bothering us instead of hitting them. Over time, we understand the importance of congratulating others on achieving something we weren’t able to do, like winning a competition or getting the date we wanted to the prom.

And, as adults and caregivers, we learn how to stay quiet when our teenage children attempt to provoke us into verbal combat, instead speaking assurances that we love them ‘no matter what’ when everything has calmed down.  We learn how to ignore the disgusting cess-pool of inside-out socks on the floor and instead congratulate them on their A- earned for their English project. We learn to tell them they look lovely, even when we hate (I mean, hate!) the outfit they are wearing.

Is this dress-code appropriate?  Hang on–your school doesn’t have a dress code. What?!?

Because parenting is ultimately about raising our children to be competent and caring members of society.  As adolescents, they understand right from wrong.  They know the rules and how to follow them.  And they see the world as a quickly opening, and yet often intimidating, place. Home becomes a haven to let out their frustrations and worries and insecurities.

So, each day I try to breathe deep, count to 10 (just like Mom taught me when I was little–everything old is new again!), and let the nasty comments and snide looks roll off me.  These, in the grand scheme, are minor infractions and pin-pointing each one with a disciplinary remark or consequence would prove counterproductive.  If I did that, my  attention would solely be focused on what they are doing wrong, thereby ignoring everything they are doing right.

My kids work hard, they care about our family and do their chores regularly without complaint, and they often (of course not always, but often) choose right from wrong. I am confident that, eventually, they will seek out my husband and I for closeness and companionship again, but until then I know that all of this angst and button-pushing from them is a sign that they are growing and developing.

And as any parent will tell you, seeing your child grow in a healthy and normal way is always a balm to the heart (even if that ‘normal’ involves calling you a sadist for asking them to take the stinky trash out).