Parental responses to offspring’s emotion in childhood influences their ability to deal with stressful situations as young adults, according to a study recently published in Physiology & Behavior.
It is thought that our ability to regulate emotions is partly determined by the strategies used by our parents to deal with our emotions in childhood. This is known as emotion socialization. Parents who encourage expression of negative emotions are likely to produce children that feel comfortable communicating their feelings and regulating their emotions. Whereas, preventing children from expressing negative emotions can result in an individual who struggles with emotions and dislikes openly discussing negative emotions.
Physiological responses to stress include activation of the autonomic nervous system and the activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis that causes a series of events resulting in the release of cortisol. Psychological responses to stress include negative emotions and cognitive effort to overcome the stressor known as, effort mobilization. There appears to be differences in the incidence of stress-related diseases among ethnicities. However, little research has compared the effect of emotion socialization and response to stress in different ethnic groups.
The study conducted by Jinhong Guo, Sylvie Mrug and David Knight (University of Alabama at Birmingham) aimed to investigate the gender and ethnic differences between parental emotion socialization and physiological and psychological responses to stress. 973 young adults took part in the study where they completed a social stress test and were measured for heart rate, blood pressure and salivary cortisol.
The results showed that individuals with emotionally supportive parents reported higher levels of effort mobilization, which means that the individual was able to put more effort into overcoming the stressor. Emotionally unsupportive parents resulted in increased negativity during the stress test, this finding was amplified in female and African American participants.
The study also found that emotionally unsupportive parents resulted in decreased levels of cortisol in females and African Americans. This is thought to be because repeated exposure to stress in childhood (in this case from harsh parenting) affects the HPA functioning and reduces physiological reactivity to stress over time.
Overall, the study highlights the unique way that emotion socialization impacts stress responses in adulthood, as well as the differences between gender and ethnic groups. The results from this study can be used in future research to gain a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms that produce the stress responses. Further understanding of parenting methods will be important for developing interventions that target specific groups of adolescents.