One of the most common methods for assessing the behavioral and emotional state of a child is a parental report. This type of evaluation usually comprises a parent’s observation and evaluation of the child’s feelings, mood states, and behaviors over a period of time. But just how accurately do parents gauge the emotional temperature of their children? That was the question at the center of a recent study conducted by C. Emily Durbin of the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University. Because parental reports can vary quite dramatically from reports obtained by other observers, such as teachers, counselors, and classmates, Durbin wanted to determine what factors, if any, skewed parents’ perceptions.
Durbin chose to focus on the effects of maternal depression on parental reports. She based her decision on the fact that other conditions, such as alcoholism, parental anxiety, and family distress, have been shown to influence maternal reports. Durbin extended the existing research and compared mothers’ reports with those of unbiased observers on a sample of 190 children ranging from 3 to 6 years old. Participants were instructed to rate levels of sadness, fear, happiness, surprise, and anger in the children after they completed 10 emotion-inducing tasks. Durbin found that the mothers with a history of depression or anxiety tended to rate their children as less happy than mothers with no such history. Additionally, these same mothers viewed their children as overly fearful, and rated girls as sadder than boys. This could be a result of maternal sensitivity to emotions such as fear and sadness. However, the outcome showed a significant disparity between observers’ ratings and those of the mothers with a psychological history. “These mothers may have greater difficulty setting aside their perceptions of the child’s typical emotional adjustment to focus solely on rating the behavior the child is currently exhibiting,” Durbin said. Although the sample size was limited to young children and did not contain a large number of mothers currently exhibiting depressive symptoms, the results warrant further investigation. Durbin believes it is essential to expand this research to include older children, comparison to other assessment tools, and evaluation of other aspects of childhood development.
Durbin, C. Emily, and Sylvia Wilson. Convergent validity of and bias in maternal reports of child emotion. Psychological Assessment 24.3 (2012): 647-60. Print.
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