Sunday, June 15, 2014
Dads and Emotional Development
In honor of Father's Day, I thought I would continue to highlight what we have learned from recent research on the importance of fathers in the emotional development of their children. Fathers are important, we all know that, but it's difficult to pin down the unique contributions that fathers make to the development of their children. Our culture doesn't do much to help with that, since the stereotype for fathers (in the U.S. at least) is that emotional development occurs with the mother while fathers manage the BBQ, take care of the car, and fix the leaky sink.
Luckily, psychologists such as Dr. Kristel Thomassin, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, continue to study emotional development by looking at the role of both mothers and fathers. In a recently published study we see that these stereotypes couldn't be further from the truth. In her most recent study, Dr. Thomassin and her colleague, Dr. Cynthia Suveg of the University of Georgia wanted some answers to the question:
How do real-time interactions between children and their parents relate to the development of healthy emotion regulation?
Now, this is a complicated question. This study highlights the complexity of the issue by first acknowledging that children do not simply develop emotion regulation from their parents in a "vertical" way, but rather that there is a transactional or "horizontal" relationship as well. Children have different biologically inherited temperaments, they respond to the world with emotions in part by instinct and in part by copying the way their parents respond to the world, the world responds to their emotional state, and they learn from those responses how to behave in the next situation.
This pattern repeats every hour of every day until the child is an adult with a repertoire of behaviors that may or may not aid them in maintaining a meaningful life in the face of life stress. Given the complexities of this bi-directional relationship, the present study looked at moment-to-moment interactions between children and their parents and described how those interactions relate to the development "effective" or "healthy" emotion regulation, and symptoms of psychopathology (depression, anxiety, oppositional defiance, aggression).
To do this, they recruited 51 children between the ages of 7 and 12. Each parent completed a checklist of their child's most common strategies for regulating emotions. Each parent (mother and father) and the child's teacher completed a list of symptoms the child exhibits that may indicate the presence of psychopathology. In this sample, about 20% of the children demonstrated clinically significant symptoms of psychopathology. Then, they had each child sit down with both their mother and father to complete the Emotion Discussion Task. In this task the family was given an emotion (anxious, sad, angry, happy) and asked to discuss a time they experienced this feeling. Each family completed this task for a total of 20 minutes, with 5 minutes dedicated to each feeling. These 20 minute discussions were videotaped, then the verbal and non-verbal behavior of each family member was coded as either positive or negative for each 10 second segment of the video. For example, if a child smiled, that would be coded as positive affect. If immediately after the child smiled, the mother rolled her eyes, that would be coded as negative, while if the father smiled back at the child that would be coded as positive. With this extremely detailed coding, this team of researchers was able to quantify the reciprocal interactions between mothers, fathers, and their children.
They expected that mothers would show more emotional reactions to their children, which was true. Mothers were more likely than fathers to respond to their children's emotional words or behaviors with matched and reciprocated emotions. They also expected that mothers and fathers who showed more positive affect in response to their child's emotions (e.g. touching their arm when the child is sad, or laughing when the child is laughing) would have children with fewer problem behaviors and symptoms. Likewise, they expected that mothers and fathers who showed more negative affect in response to their child's emotions (e.g. laughing at the child's expense, showing hostility when the child is expressing anger) would have children with more problem behaviors and symptoms. This was also true, but only for fathers. In other words, fathers who respond with positive, supportive, and reciprocal affect to their children's emotional state had children with fewer problems at home and at school. Thus, the father's role in emotional development by simply responding to the child's emotion in a supportive way is protective during development. What's more interesting is that the child's "healthy emotion regulation" accounted for this relationship, such that a father's ability to respond with positive and supportive emotional reciprocity to their child's emotional state was related to better ability to regulate emotions in general, which was related to fewer symptoms of psychopathology.
This finding suggests that fathers play a unique and important role in helping a child develop effective ways to manage their primary emotions. From a very basic perspective, a parent's ability to show support to a child or validate their experience goes a long way. If a child is crying, an adult laughing at them teaches the child that showing negative emotions is something to be ashamed of. If a child is angry, a parent responding to the child's frustration with their own frustration sends the message that the child's emotions are a burden to the parent, and should be suppressed if possible. It's probably not difficult to see how these patterns can, across a lifetime, facilitate depression, anxiety, or aggression. However, before this study we would have expected that this was a stronger relationship between mothers and their children, instead of fathers and their children, while that was not the case.
What's also important to remember is that these families were not doing anything extraordinary during the task, simply discussing a recent experience where emotions were involved. This occurs at the dinner table every night, or in the car on the way to a birthday party. Every moment counts.
So, what's the point? What many parents lose sight of is that they are teaching their child every moment of every day, whether they are trying to or not. Kids learn something very special and unique about emotion regulation from their fathers. If you are a parent, the way you respond to your child's feelings will teach them how to behave when they have those feelings in the future and, hopefully, protect them from developing ineffective ways of coping with emotions and stress as they grow. For me that meant learning, "Don't sweat the small stuff. And remember, it's all small stuff" and how to deal with stress by making lists and prioritizing my time, but all fathers have a special skill set to share about how to get through life unscathed.
For more on Fathers click here to read last year's feature!
Thomassin, K., & Suveg, C. (2014). Reciprocal Positive Affect and Well-Regulated, Adjusted Children: A Unique Contribution of Fathers. Parenting, 14(1), 28-46.
Posted by Kate Ryan at 9:00:00 AM