Why do some children who are raised amid poverty, risk and danger emerge as more resilient than others in similar circumstances ? Why do some grow up relatively unscathed compared with their peers, whose later lives may be scarred by criminality, poor mental health, and repeated disadvantage?
Having a calm, supportive parent when something goes wrong may be part of the answer. That’s a mom or dad who responds to early childhood frustration, anger, anxiety or tantrums by neither suppressing those emotions nor ignoring them. Rather, such parents are empathetic and understanding, and they help children to steady themselves. They also model this steadiness in the way they deal with the adversities that they encounter. That’s not easy for parents who may themselves be struggling with multiple challenges. But our research suggests that doing it well can make a big difference for their children.
Emotionally supportive parenting has long term impacts
This parental skill of helping young children handle their emotions – in difficult social and economic circumstances that may provoke many strong feelings – can support emotional self-management. This in turn enables young children to concentrate better at school and get along with others. We know from other studies of self-regulation that, in the longer run, these skills help children to grow up at lower risk of anxiety, depression, violent behavior and criminal acts. As adults, they operate better at work, at home and within the law.
We’re not necessarily talking about parents working miracles amid adversity. Emotionally supportive parenting can’t turn around every impact of the many difficulties faced by children who, in their early years, may experience poor, crowded housing, an inadequate diet, and insufficient stimulation, surrounded by badly resourced neighbourhoods. But our research shows that, for these children, emotionally supportive parenting can flatten the curve: it can at least stop things from getting worse.
“What do parents do, when, for example, a young child becomes angry because someone has done something unfair to them, such as take their toy?”
Our study examined the relationship between emotion-related parenting and externalising symptoms such as aggression across early school years among 207 children (two-thirds of them boys) from high-risk urban communities in the United States, who showed aggressive/oppositional behaviors when they started school. Their mothers’ level of supportive, emotion-related parenting was observed in the year of kindergarten during structured interactions at home. Our measure captured how parents responded to children’s emotions, how parents talked about emotions, and the way parents expressed their own emotions. Teacher ratings of externalising symptoms, including aggressive and rule-breaking behaviors, were then measured every year to the second grade.
Aggression rose amid less-skilled parenting
Aggressive behavior worsened among children who lacked emotionally supportive parenting. Each year, teachers reported seeing more problems than in the year before. In contrast, when mothers offered supportive emotion-related parenting, the children did not necessarily improve, but they didn’t get worse. Emotionally supportive parenting seems to halt the escalation in aggression as children grow older, which, research shows, can predict so many difficulties in later life.
In practical terms, we are talking about what parents do, when, for example, young children become angry because someone has done something unfair to them, such as take their toy. A child might want to scream, start crying or punch the child that took the toy. But a parent can encourage a range of strategies to help the upset child avoid following this first impulse.
Doing so might be difficult. The parent might be struggling with a host of other serious issues, such as how to pay the rent, living in a dangerous neighbourhood and parenting a difficult child. These problems can weigh on the parents, making it hard for them to sympathise in the moment about the relatively insignificant problems faced by their child. Mom or dad’s response might be: ‘Life’s unfair. You have no idea. I hate my job.’ They might think it best to toughen up the child to face disappointments, telling them to suck it up and cope with it.
But that’s not as helpful – even when the upset seems to be around something apparently trivial – as when a parent sympathises, talks things through, and helps the child understand their feelings. Simply labelling an emotion, saying it is normal, helps children regulate their reactions. Parents can also help children develop a step-by-step strategy when feeling upset, such as taking deep breaths and calming themselves. Afterwards, parents might say, ‘I’m sorry that your toy was taken, but let’s leave it in the past and do something fun now.’ That can help children who are feeling negative to know that their emotions are understood while giving them a way of coming back and feeling better.
Opportunities to model emotion-related parenting
A lot of parents also find opportunities in daily life – when a young child is not expressing emotions – of exploring feelings and how to handle them. When parents and children read a book, they might encounter a character who is experiencing difficulties. That’s an opportunity to talk about what the character is feeling and what the character could do.
Parents can also model how they deal with their own stress. Parents are the gateway to the world for young children. Stress can either flow through parents by affecting how they respond to their children, or parents can make the decision to demonstrate how stress can be handled. This doesn’t mean parents should hide their emotions, or the fact that they are upset or scared. Children are way too good at picking up on that. It’s better for parents to acknowledge that they are worried and explain how they are going to handle what’s going on. They can say: ‘This is how we will resolve it and, if you are worried about it too, let’s do something together about it.’ These parents are modelling that emotions are normal and that there are ways to manage them.
In our research sample, we did not see a lot of emotionally supportive parenting. Only 10 per cent of the mothers showed consistently emotionally supportive parenting. But where they could offer it, we saw a flattening of the curve, so that, over time, the increased aggression and externalising behavior found in other children were less likely to occur.
Learning to be more empathetic parents
There is potential to improve this picture further. Few programs specifically focus on emotion-related parenting. One that does so is Tuning in to Kids, which has been tested in low- to middle-income families in Australia. This program had moderate to strong effects, at least in the short term, in improving parents’ supportive behaviors and in reducing parents’ dismissive reactions to children’s emotions.
“Emotionally supportive parenting seems to halt an escalation in aggression as children grow older, which can predict so many difficulties in later life.”
It has also been shown to be effective when implemented in families with children who already demonstrated behavioral problems (similar to our sample), or went through traumatic experiences. And researchers also found improvements in children’s behaviors when parents participated in the program, compared to a control group. This evidence suggests that there may be strong potential to promote supportive, emotion-related parenting behaviors through training programs, even for families in disadvantaged situations.
Many other parent training programs, such as Triple-P and Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, may not specifically target emotion-related parenting, but they include components that try to promote parents’ sensitivity to children’s emotional cues, such as signals that may indicate a child is upset, and teach parents skills to help children regulate emotions. These programs have been tested in diverse populations, including families living in disadvantaged communities or families with children already showing behavioral problems. They have led to more positive parenting, such as warmth, effective discipline, and sensitivity, as well as improvements in children’s behaviors.
Parents should recognise their achievements
A key message from our research is that children may display behavior problems for many reasons, particularly given the multiple difficulties that disadvantaged families face. Parents should not beat themselves up and be judged as failures if their children continue to have behavioral problems. Their interventions might be doing a lot to stop their children from getting worse amid multiple challenges. That huge achievement should be celebrated.
Header photo: stupidmommy. Creative Commons.