How Accurate Are Parental Reports Regarding Children’s Emotional States?

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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  • erica

    September 26th, 2012 at 11:44 PM

    the clinicians would obviously view the reporting from an alcoholic parent with suspicion but they wouldn’t do the same for a depressed parent now would they? Just goes to show how clinicians should not totally rely on parental reporting.

  • Jim G

    September 27th, 2012 at 3:55 AM

    I do not agree that the best reporting could come from parents. I don’t think that I would be the best judge of my child’s emotional state simply because of how involved I am going to get into it. I think that a better judge would be teachers who are with my child all school day, and even counselors that he or she may have been seeing. I have a hard time with thinking that most parents could be all that objective when it comes to looking at their own children because if you are like me I have a habit of always seeing them only through rose colored glasses.

  • TODD

    September 27th, 2012 at 5:21 AM

    I’d say its never a good idea to consider parental reports when it comes to children’s emotional states.Although it is the parents that get the most time to observe there children,they are not really trained professionals for this and just the fact that it is their child may have an influence in their perception.A professional is always a better route.

  • bray

    September 27th, 2012 at 3:39 PM

    But if not the parents, then who else is going to have a better poin t of view about what’s happening with their own kid?
    Geez, I would hope that the parent would be the first person that you would want to talk to!

  • Ms. Barron

    September 27th, 2012 at 5:46 PM

    Well, parents are a good resource to go you, but we do have to keep in mind that sometimes a parent will be more prejudiced than say a third party would be. if you want to hear from someone who has no preconceived notions about who the child is or even what their perception of the child is, then it could be better to seek representation from someone else. We all try as parents to be as open minded and objective as possible, but you know, they’re our kids, and that gets kind of tricky sometimes.

  • daniel

    September 27th, 2012 at 9:25 PM

    yes parents may not be experts in concluding things by observing the kids’ behaviors but they are the ones that can monitor and observe the kids for the longest time and reporting shouldn’t be a problem as long as the conclusions are made by a specialist!

  • Esther Jones

    September 28th, 2012 at 4:00 AM

    I can see both points of view.

    Parents can be honest when they want to be, just like the rest of us. If they have an angle, though, then how are they to be trusted to be any more honest and forthright than anyone else? Doesn’t that sound terrible? I know that it does but I think that we have to be willing to be very realistic in situations like these.

  • Bevan

    September 28th, 2012 at 5:28 AM

    So its almost like the parents let their own mood influence the report and assessment they make of their children’s state? In that case happy parents would be blind to their kids’ issues won’t they? Is there any word on this?

  • nate

    September 28th, 2012 at 1:16 PM

    If the parent is the one referring the kid for treatment then that tells me that the parent is the one who really has the best idea about the issues the kid is going through, and probably has the most honest view of the situation

  • matt R

    September 29th, 2012 at 1:57 PM

    So maybe the reports coming from the mothers with a history of depression should not be viewed as quite as valid as those reports from the parents who have never dealt with depression? This sounds like it is plausible. If they are ratung their kids as sadder based on their past history, then I think that if I were a therapist I would look elsewhere for some other reports because this may not be the one that you can best rely upon.

  • Caroline Jennings

    September 30th, 2012 at 5:05 AM

    Must we have to say this? Parents are biased about their own kids. It’s a fact- we just are.

    Think about how hard it is for you to stand back and be critical of your own child, not for the sake of being mean but for the sake of being honest. Doesn’t make it any easier does ot?

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