Published in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences, new research has examined the relationship between mother’s emotion regulation difficulties, their use of emotion regulation strategies with their child, and the child’s level of irritability. The study found that children were more irritable when their mothers had emotion regulation difficulties, but adaptive and maladaptive assistance strategies were not predictors of child irritability.
Research suggests that certain emotion socialization behaviors — such as parent’s emotional expression, responses to their child’s emotions, and parent’s discussion of emotions with their children — are related to the child’s emotion regulation outcomes.
One of the first signs of children’s emotion regulation issues are signs of irritability. Researchers Dominique Cave-Freeman and colleagues were interested in investigating how mothers’ emotion regulation assistance strategies impact their children’s irritability during the first 5 years of life.
The researchers recruited 371 mothers of children 5 years old or younger who spoke English via Prolific. Participants responded to 50 items from the PACER (which measure emotion regulation strategies), 10 items from the K-10 questionnaire (which measures distress), 18 items from the DERS-SF (which measures maternal difficulties with emotion regulation), and items from the Temper Loss Subscale of the MAP-DB questionnaire (which measured irritability).
Results of this study show that maternal emotion regulation difficulties accounted for 13.1% of the variance in child irritability. The older the child was, the less irritable the child was and mothers who had higher levels of psychological distress and emotion regulation difficulties had children with higher levels of irritability. But only 2% of the variance in child irritability could be explained by the mother’s emotion regulation strategies.
Overall, Cave-Freeman and colleagues found that mother’s emotion regulation difficulties were not associated with their use of adaptive or maladaptive strategies. These researchers argue that mothers who have difficulty regulating their emotions may not be able to appropriately support their children in developing adaptive emotion regulation tendencies.
Cave-Freeman and colleagues argue this may be due to these mothers being less likely to offer emotional support when their child was distressed. However, some mothers may be able to give their child emotion regulation assistance regardless of their own emotion regulation strategies.
Considering Cave-Freeman and colleagues did not find that adaptive or maladaptive assistance strategies were significant predictors of the child’s irritability, they suggest this finding may be due to the questionnaire’s inquiry of general reactions to children’s emotions, rather than specific emotions such as temper outbursts. Maternal emotion regulation difficulties and child irritability may be linked to implicitly modelled maternal skills such as the mother’s response to the child’s negative emotions or via environmental pathways, genetic pathways, or be driven by the child’s irritability.
A limitation of this study is that self-report was used, which could lead to social desirability bias. Furthermore, all responses were obtained from the mothers, so future work might obtain responses from the fathers and/or clinicians. This study evaluated irritability of children who were 5 years old or younger; however, children’s emotions develop over time past the age of 5.
The study, “Maternal Emotion Regulation and Early Childhood Irritability: The Role of Child Directed Emotion Regulation Strategies“, was authored by Dominique Cave-Freeman, Vincent O. Mancini, Lauren S. Wakschlag, and Amy Finlay-Jones.