Parental Influence on the Emotional Development of Children
by Bethel Moges and Kristi Weber
When most people think of parenting, they picture changing diapers, messy feeding times, and chasing a screaming child through a crowded grocery store. But parenting goes far beyond the requirements for meeting the basic survival needs of the child, and parents have a significant influence on how children turn out, including their personality, emotional development, and behavioral habits, as well as a host of other factors. It is important for the overall development of children that parents be present enough to support them, and this support fosters confidence and growth in many areas. Here we will explore the ways parents can impact the emotional development of their children.
Sometimes, just being physically present is not enough. Parents that may be nearby but that are not emotionally invested or responsive tend to raise children that are more distressed and less engaged with their play or activities. A study investigating the connection between parent’s investment and children’s competence suggests that the emotional involvement of parents really does matter and affects the outcome of their child’s emotional competence and regulation (Volling, 458). Parents should keep this in mind when considering the quality of the time they spend with their children, because if they do not invest enough of their time and commitment into pouring emotionally into their child, the child will struggle to learn how to regulate his emotions and interact with others appropriately.
In studying the outcomes of Ainsworth’s Strange Situation experiments, L. Alan Sroufe found that the style of early attachment relationships predicts later emotional development of children. Sroufe asserts that, “Such variations [of relationship quality] are not reflections of genetically based traits of the infant but of the history of interaction with the parent” (188). This suggests that attachment styles are not inborn but are driven by how parents interact with their infant from birth. Longitudinal attachment studies show that children with anxious attachment were likely to be emotionally disturbed and have low self-esteem (Sroufe 190). If the form of attachment has such long-lasting impacts on children, it is clear that parents must treat their children in ways that foster secure attachment in order for the children to grow into emotionally stable adolescents and adults.
An important factor in the emotional development of children is how warm caregivers are, and studies have been done to find the effects of depressed mothers on the emotional development of children. Depressed mothers have maladaptive thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors, and these, along with being in a similarly stressful environment as the mother, put a child at risk of developing his own emotional problems (Sroufe 204). The fact that depressed mothers are likely to be indifferent towards their children, put them in less social situations, and generally provide less stimulation for their children, puts the children at a disadvantage for achieving normal emotional development.
A key aspect of emotional development in children is learning how to regulate emotions. Children see how their parents display emotions and interact with other people, and they imitate what they see their parents do to regulate emotions (Sheffield Morris et. al). A child’s temperament also plays a role in their emotion regulation, guided by the parenting style they receive (Belsky et al). For example, children more prone to negative emotions or episodes of anger are deeply affected by hostile and neglectful parenting, often leading to even more behavioral problems. Difficult temperaments can become a bidirectional problem that evokes even more negative emotions from the parent if not monitored. Parents should be aware that not only do their own emotions and parenting style affect the emotional outcomes of their children, but if they are not aware of how their children’s tempers affect them, they could fall into a spiral of ineffective and indifferent parenting which further contributes to negative behaviors from the children.
Furthermore, how parents address the emotions of their children and respond to them affects how expressive the children feel they can be. Reacting with criticism or dismissing the sadness or anger of a child communicates that their emotions are not valid or appropriate, which can cause children to be even more prone to those negative emotions and less able to cope with stress (Siegler et. al). Instead, guiding children’s emotions and helping them find ways to express themselves in a healthy manner helps them continue regulating their responses to challenges and even aids their academic and social competence. This sort of emotion coaching greatly helps in reducing future problem behavior in children.
In addition to being able to express their own emotions, it is important in social situations for children to be able to identify and deal with the emotions of those around them. Parents model for their children how to comfort someone who is crying or smile at someone who is smiling, but other parental behaviors also influence how their children learn to understand the emotions of others. It has been found that the interaction between parents affects a child’s emotional and social development, and marital conflict contributes to problems in these developmental areas (Sheffield Morris et. al). The biggest contributing factor in marital relations affecting children’s emotional development is whether the child hears the parents fighting. This is referred to as “background anger” in the child’s environment and if the child is exposed to it, even though it is not directed at the child, problems with emotional security and regulation are likely to result from it (Sheffield Morris et. al). Coming from a family with divorced parents, I (Kristi) can relate to this issue of background anger being a factor, because although my parents split when I was at a vulnerable age, they made sure not to fight in front of my sister and I, and I think that allowed us to have a healthier reaction to the divorce and to be emotionally well-adjusted in social interactions.
Parenting decisions affect how children turn out physically, socially, and emotionally, but that is not to say parents should be obsessed with following certain steps to have a perfectly well-adjusted child. We accept that there is no perfect formula for parents to model behavior or speak to children in certain ways to make them have a perfect emotional development experience, and that places a limit on our exploration of this subject. Parents can help their children develop into emotionally stable people by giving them a supportive environment, positive feedback, role models of healthy behavior and interactions, and someone to talk to about their emotional reactions to their experiences.
Sheffield Morris, A., Silk, J. S., Steinberg, L., Myers, S. S., & Robinson, L. R. (2007). The role of the family context in the development of emotional regulation.Social Development, 16(2), pp 361-388.
Siegler, R., DeLoache, J., & Eisenberg, N. (2011). How children develop. (3rd ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.
Sroufe, L. A. (2001). From infant attachment to promotion of adolescent autonomy: Prospective, longitudinal data on the role of parents in development. In J. G. Borkowski, S. L. Ramey & M. Bristol-Power (Eds.), Parenting and the Child’s World: Influences on Academic, Intellectual, and Social-emotional Development. Psychology Press.
Volling, B., McElwain, N., Notaro, P., & Herrera, C. (2002). Parents’ emotional availability and infant emotional competence: Predictors of parent-infant attachment and emerging self-regulation. Journal of family psychology, 16, pp 447-465.