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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