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When children are upset, mothers and fathers make a difference

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

When a young child experiences negative emotions--anger, anxiety, or distress--can his parents respond in a way that fosters the child's emotional development?

A new University of Illinois study in the September/October issue of Child Development suggests that young children benefit when mothers and fathers differ in their reactions to their child's negative emotions.

"When a young child is angry, sad, or frustrated, the best scenario seems to be if one parent comforts and problem-solves with the child while the other parent hangs back a bit and gives the child space to process what he's feeling," said Nancy McElwain, a U of I assistant professor of human development.

When that happens, the child is more likely to gain experience in understanding and controlling his emotions. He may also benefit from seeing different types of reactions, realize that there are different ways of looking at things, and thus develop more complex thinking about and understanding of emotions, she said.

"We're hypothesizing that if both parents rush in to help the child, the child doesn't have a chance to experience negative feelings and learn how to manage them," she said.

The researcher emphasized that "hanging back" isn't the same as punishing a child for being upset or minimizing those feelings. The second parent should also be supportive, but quietly so, she said.

McElwain and her colleagues conducted two studies. In Study 1, 55 kindergarten students were interviewed to assess their understanding of situations in which they might have both positive and negative emotions. The researchers also asked the children to predict how others might feel when their expectations were not met--for example, if they believed there were cookies in a jar but then found the jar was empty.

In Study 2, 49 preschoolers were observed during play sessions with a close friend. In one session, there were many toys to play with, and the children were left to play either together or alone. In the other session, there was one novel toy that the children had to share. From these observations, the researchers assessed levels of child-friend play and conflict.

Finally, in both studies, mothers and fathers independently completed a questionnaire about how they would respond to their child's negative emotions. Parents who reported supportive reactions indicated that they would frequently comfort their upset child and help their child solve the problem that had caused the negative emotion.

Across the two studies, the research showed that children exhibited higher emotional understanding and less conflict with friends when one parent reported high support while the other parent reported low support. In most situations, children fared similarly regardless of which parent took on which role.

But, in some cases, children had better outcomes when fathers, in particular, reported high support and mothers reported low support. "Emotionally supportive fathers may ask more questions about the causes or consequences of their child's distress, resulting in the children having a more complex understanding of their feelings," she said.

She also speculated that because mothers are generally high in support, a low-supporting mother may be more supportive than she appears.

And, in Study 2, the findings only held for boys. "Because boys engage in more forceful and aggressive strategies during conflict, support from parents may be more important for boys. Or it could be that boys are often socialized to hide or discount their negative emotions, so when they receive support, perhaps they're better able to benefit from it," she said.

Of the study's findings, McElwain said, "They're somewhat counterintuitive. You'd think the more support a child receives when she's upset, the better off she'd be. But the study shows that sometimes less is more."

She encourages couples to think about how they respond to a young child's anger, anxiety, or frustration as a parental unit, not as individuals. That's particularly important if a child has many negative episodes, she said.

"When you react to a negative emotion, I'd suggest that one parent step back a bit and let the other parent handle it," she said.

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Co-authors include Amy G. Halberstadt of North Carolina State University and Brenda L. Volling of the University of Michigan. Study 1 was supported by McElwain's postdoctoral fellowship from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Study 2 was supported by grants from the University of Michigan and Volling's NICHD Independent Scientist Award.

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