Too much support may hamper kids’ development

Too much support may hamper kids’ development

By Anne Harding / Child Development
Wed Oct 17, 2007 2:36 PM ET

Moms and dads who both offer
lots of support and reassurance when their young children
express negative emotions may not be doing them a favor, new
research shows.

Studies in four- and five-year-olds found that the children
whose parents reacted with differing levels of support to their
emotional setbacks were actually more emotionally mature and
handled conflict better, Dr. Nancy L. McElwain of the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and her colleagues
found.

"It’s good to give your child some support, but also at the
same time some space to manage the problem," McElwain told
Reuters Health.

Parents’ reactions to a child’s negative emotions play a
key role in social and emotional growth, McElwain and her team
point out in the current issue of Child Development.

Most research has focused on how mothers interact with
children, McElwain and her team note. To look at the role of
mothers and fathers together, the researchers conducted two
experiments, one evaluating children’s emotional understanding
and the other investigating friendship quality. Parents of
children in both studies filled out questionnaires designed to
measure their level of emotional support.

In the first experiment, 55 kindergarten-age children were
told simple stories designed to measure their level of
emotional understanding — in particular whether they grasped
the idea of mixed emotions. In the second, the researchers
observed 52 four-year-olds at play for 20 minutes with a close
friend, then presented the pair with a "desirable toy" and
watched how they "handled a situation of limited resources."

In both experiments, the children whose parents showed
differing levels of support fared best, showing greater
emotional understanding and less conflict with friends.
Children whose parents were both highly supportive actually
fared worse.

Offering a low level of support didn’t necessarily mean a
parent reacted in a harsh or punitive way, McElwain noted.

She pointed out that kids who get very high levels of
support from both Mom and Dad may be missing the opportunity to
learn how to cope with negative situations. "High levels of
support from both parents might overwhelm and undermine the
child’s ability to work it out on his or her own," she
explained. At the same time, children who see their parents
reacting differently to the same situation may be developing a
more sophisticated understanding of emotions.

But it’s also possible, she added, that parents may be
extra-supportive of children who are already having social and
emotional difficulties.

The next step in the research, McElwain said, will be to
actually observe parents spending time with their children,
rather than simply relying on parents’ own reports of how they
interact with their kids.

SOURCE: Child Development, September/October 2007.

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