Smiling Through the Pain: The Impact of Incongruent Affect and Emotions on Children Great Lakes Psychology Group
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Smiling Through the Pain: The Impact of Incongruent Affect and Emotions on Children

A parent talking to her children, exemplifying an honest conversation instead of incongruent affect.

Example of Incongruent Affect

Imagine a mother and daughter walking along a sidewalk on a beautiful day when they see a man yelling at a little boy, forcefully grabbing him by the arm, and threatening to hit him. They are both upset by this scene, so the mother’s response is to hold her daughter’s hand and walk faster to get away. She then tries reassuring her daughter by saying, “Everything is fine.” She might even explain that the man was “just mad” and that everything would be okay.

This may seem like a good way for a parent to handle this type of scenario, but it may have some troubling aspects. Certainly, the mother had good intentions to try to protect her daughter from an upsetting experience. However, the mother was acting as if everything was fine when, in fact, she and her daughter were frightened.

This is an example of incongruent affect or expression of emotions — when a person’s inner feelings do not match their outer expression or words. Affect, in this context, refers to any experience and expression of feeling or emotion. The child felt scared and upset, yet her mother told her to deny that experience and reframe the situation as not frightening.

By falsely reassuring a child that “everything is okay” when it clearly is not, a parent can create confusion about recognizing and responding to emotions. This confusion may impact a child into adulthood, causing them to struggle to learn appropriate social and emotional skills. It may even lead to tolerating abusive or coercive relationships if ignoring their own emotional signals becomes a learned behavior over time.

Roles of Emotions in Communication

Humans read the emotions of others as signals about many things, notably safety and danger, acceptance and rejection, love and hate. Ideally, we have congruence or an agreement between what we feel and how we express it. If we are happy, we are relaxed and smile. If we are sad, we show a downcast face and may cry. Our mood aligns with our facial expressions, our body language, and how we talk about these experiences.

However, humans are a very complicated species, and we also have the ability to mask our feelings — to smile through pain or laugh when we are grieving. We might even tell “white lies,” such as laughing at a bad joke or complimenting something we dislike. At the extreme end of this spectrum, some people with sociopathic traits are very skilled at masking their thoughts and intentions to deceive others.

Origins of Incongruent and Inappropriate Affect

In psychology, the terms incongruent affect and inappropriate affect describe when a person’s emotional demeanor, including facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice, seem out of place or do not logically relate to a situation or stimuli.

In rare cases, inappropriate affect can result from physical damage to the brain, such as that due to a brain tumor, dementia, brain injury, or head trauma. Lack of oxygen to the brain is also a potentially reversible cause of inappropriate affect.

Much more commonly, incongruent affect is learned in childhood from family members who may not be skilled at properly expressing their emotions in balanced and appropriate ways. Children learn their emotional skills mainly from parents, caregivers, and siblings with whom they spend the most amount of time.

What Does Incongruent Affect Look Like?

Incongruent affect can be seen in the teen who says he is fine but is slumped listlessly in a chair, with an expressionless face, and no energy.

It can also be an exaggerated, dramatic response to a minor issue or awkward, nervous laughter when nothing is funny.

Psychotherapists often look for odd responses to emotional situations, such as smiling when narrating sad news. This can signal someone who is avoiding expressing an emotion such as grief. Many people avoid acknowledging their sadness or grief because they are afraid that tapping into those emotions will open up a well of uncontrollable suffering.  Similarly, others avoid expressing even mild anger for fear they will become enraged and uncontrollable.

Many people express a fear of experiencing negative or intense emotions, so they divert and avoid these feelings by expressing contrary emotions, hence the expression “smiling through the pain.”

Lifelong Impacts of Parental Incongruent Affect and Emotions

We all have the ability to express emotions in confusing ways, and it can sometimes be helpful in adult relationships to mask our true feelings. However, it may have negative impacts when parents consistently use incongruent and confusing emotions with children.

For example, Davey’s parents brought him to therapy for concerns that he was manipulating them and lying frequently. Davey, age 6, appeared at first to be a charming child. He smiled easily and was pleasant. But I also noticed that his mother and father both smiled and laughed nervously at inappropriate times. In fact, they smiled throughout discussing his fairly severe deceptions and tantrums. There was no consistency between the seriousness of the words they were saying and their facial expressions.

How was Davey to learn that lying and tantrums were serious matters when his parents were smiling as they discussed them? It was apparent Davey was merely copying his parents in the way that they were behaving. Their confusing emotional display was, in fact, a minor form of deception.

Thinking back to our first example, a parent stating a disturbing scene was “fine,” doesn’t make it feel fine to the child. She still feels upset, confused, and scared. In fact, the mother was lying to her daughter despite having the intention of comforting her.

What might the mother have done differently? She could have acknowledged the upsetting nature of the scene and honored and labeled those feelings, rather than dismissing them. She could even state that what the man was doing was not appropriate. The mother may have even decided to intervene and speak up about the man’s mistreatment of the boy. This would have been a more congruent emotional experience for the girl.

A child who has her feelings dismissed regularly can grow up to dismiss experiences that should frighten her. Emotions such as fear and moral disgust are signals that may tell her a person has bad intentions and should lead her to act in self-protection. Without this very helpful fear response she may make inaccurate assessments of the emotions of others, be a poor judge of character, and perhaps tolerate unhealthy or even abusive relationships.

In childhood, incongruent affect can also lead to a lack of emotional skill, with over-sensitivity to peer rejection or poor social cue reading and responding. When one grows up with inaccurate emotional signals being sent by others, it may also lead to high levels of distrust and anxiety. Children may develop chronic, low-grade anxiety from the constant need to de-code confusing verbal and emotional signals. Remember that children are learning how to make sense of many confusing inputs from others, such as facial expressions, emotions, tone of voice, and words.

Congruent emotions in a relationship help us relate authentically to each other. Without the experience of congruent emotions from parents, children may engage in disconnected, distant relationships or complete avoidance of relationships in adulthood. It can also result in a person disconnecting from the important ability to trust themselves and their emotional experiences, an essential part of being human.

If you or your child could benefit from processing emotions or the impact of incongruent affect with a professional, visit


More about Harper West, MA, LLP

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Harper West, MA, LLP, is a psychotherapist in Clarkston, Michigan. Harper serves on the Michigan Board of Psychology. She is certified in various forms of mindfulness and compassion-based therapies and has completed advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. She has written and contributed to award-winning books, has edited and written for professional journals, and has spoken at professional conferences.