The Reciprocal Nature of Child Emotion Regulation and Supportive Parenting

Children learn an enormous amount from their caregivers and parents. They learn through direct contact how to communicate, interact, and perform daily activities. They learn through exposure how to react and emotionally respond to situations. And whether parents are fully aware of this or not, a child’s behavior is in part the result of their parents’ response to it. According to a recent study led by Diana Morelen of the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia, children and parents have a reciprocal emotional relationship. In other words, the way in which a parent responds to a child’s emotional reaction directly influences the way in which a child emotionally reacts.

The primary aim of Morelen’s study was to determine how reciprocal the child-parent emotional relationship was. Using a sample of 54 participants made up of fathers, mothers, and pre-adolescent children, Morelen examined how supportive emotional parenting (SEP) affected emotion regulation when compared to unsupportive emotional parenting (UEP). Specifically, Morelen wanted to know if SEP increased adaptive emotion regulation (AER) in children and if UEP increased maladaptive emotion regulation (MER). She then wanted to find out if these relationships were bidirectional. Morelen assessed the parents and children as they talked about four different emotions, anxiety, sadness, anger, and happiness.

She discovered that the way in which parents responded to their children’s emotions directly impacted the way in which children emotionally reacted. Morelen’s theory of reciprocity was confirmed when she found that SEP led to AER and AER led to SEP in all four of the discussion conditions. Also, MER predicted more UEP than SEP for fathers and mothers when discussing anger. However, when discussing the more vulnerable emotional states of sadness, mothers responded with SEP more than fathers when children exhibited MER. This finding could be partially explained by the male ideal of power and strength. This, in turn, may lead fathers to identify emotional vulnerability as a weakness. However, Morelen believes this is concerning because there is an abundant amount of research linking UEP to feelings of shame and inadequacy and patterns of emotional suppression, all of which can increase the risk for psychological impairment. Because of this, Morelen hopes interventions aimed at addressing family, child, and parent interactions focus on the emotional response of both mothers and fathers. “Programs could highlight the role that child behavior plays in soliciting parental behavior and coach parents on how to be mindful of the potential (positive or negative) influence of child behavior,” said Morelen.

Morelen, Diana, and Cynthia Suveg. A real-time analysis of parent-child emotion discussions: The interaction is reciprocal. Journal of Family Psychology 26.6 (2012): 998-1003. Print.

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  • charles

    January 17th, 2013 at 3:48 AM

    Is there really anyone out there dumb enough to not think that their actions and words to their kids do not directly influence the things that their kids think and feel not only about others but especially themselves? I know that my wife and I have always tried to be very mindful of the words that we use and the looks that we give because we have never wanted our own children to look back and think of how they might have thought about themselves had it not been for harshness from us. It disappoints me when I hear parents say that they think that their children were just born a certain way, because in my experience so much of it is about what you give them as they grow up and has very little to do with nature alone.

  • aleksandra

    September 19th, 2017 at 12:55 AM

    I think there is a nature and nurture of this nature that plays a very important part in relationship with our children. Taking care of nice behavior is not enough. My parents never argued or behaved badly in front of me and my brother but there are emotional energies that speak louder than words many times. I can say I got all these unresolved energies as a heritage from my parents:). I believe parents should not act unnaturally kind and under control. It took me decades to understand these non verbal communication that I subconsciously read in my childhood. It would have been much easier if my parents had tried to express naturally. Parents should show and talk about emotions. Family should be a safe place where one can express rather than impress…

  • Denny

    January 17th, 2013 at 11:15 PM

    Its always so important to be careful about how you react and what you say to your child. You never know what thing can come to influence then the wrong way. Its always a good idea to keep our instinctive negative reactions away from children so as to shield them.

    This should serve as a reminder to all parents out there. A very useful study in my opinion.

  • Melody

    January 18th, 2013 at 4:04 AM

    When a child has an issue it is silly to think that you can get the child into therapy and everything will be okay as long as you are looking at treating the child. It is a simple fact that is highlighted here that what happens to the child can almost always in some way go back to how the entire family interacts and communicates with each other. I know that parents are looking for someone or something to blame other than themselves, but the cold hard truth is that if we have a child experiencing some thing that are not so pleasant, we have to do a better job of finding out what role we could be playing in that and contributing to that. This is not supposed to be a blame game, but I would want to know what I could do better to help my child achieve more of a sense of normalcy.

  • Allie

    January 18th, 2013 at 9:57 AM

    Yes, there are people dumb enough to not realize their actions directly influence their kids. From my close personal experience with one of these people, it appears they are people who are raised by abusive parents with unpredictable moods (hence the lack of awareness of their ability to impact situations by their actions). At least in this case, alcoholism plays a major role and is also a result. As for the argument about nature vs. nurture, alcoholism is a good example to illustrate that the two are inextricably connected. Take a look at two siblings raised in the same environment and you will see a strong influence of innate tempermental factors. The same environment can produce quite different results. Some aspects of temperment are apparent even in the hospital nursery when the only environment a child has been exposed to is the womb. The more I see of generational issues, the more they appear the result of interactions between innate biological make-up and environmental factors. I do believe environmental factors are crucial, but let’s face it, kids arrive with some of their wiring already in place and some kids just take more to parent than others.

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