New research indicates that when parents attribute their children’s emotions to the child’s intrinsic nature, the children are more likely to show behavioral issues. This holds true for both internalized emotional challenges and outwardly directed behaviors. The reasons for this connection appear to be related to how parents react to their child’s emotional struggles. These findings have been published in Cognition and Emotion.
Deficits in emotion regulation (the ability to manage and control emotions effectively) have been linked to various psychological problems in children. Parents play a pivotal role in shaping their children’s emotion regulation abilities through their emotion socialization practices. These practices are influenced by parents’ beliefs and feelings about emotions.
While there is existing research on parental attributions regarding children’s behavior, there’s limited research on parental attributions regarding children’s emotion expression. The researchers involved in the current study sought to help fill this gap in the literature.
“On a daily basis, parents frequently make inferences about the causes of their child’s behavior, such as ‘he must be having a bad day’ or ‘she did this on purpose.’ These causal attributions are known to play an important role in how positive or negative parents respond to the behaviors of their children,” explained study author Joyce J. Endendijk, assistant professor at the Department of Clinical, Child, and Family Studies at Utrecht University.
“Generally, attributions that blame the child for misbehaving elicit more negative and punitive reactions, than attributions that do not hold the child responsible for the behavior. Surprisingly few studies examined parents’ attributions about children’s emotions. Yet, such attributions about emotions might be highly relevant for the development of internalizing (e.g., depression, anxiety) and externalizing problems (e.g., aggression) in children, as both types of problems include disturbances in emotion or mood.”
For their study, the researchers recruited a sample of 241 participants via the Amazon Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform. Eligible participants had to have a U.S.-based IP address and a child between the ages of 5 and 7 years old. These parents were presented with six vignettes (brief written scenarios) depicting children experiencing internalizing and externalizing emotions, asking them to imagine their own child in those situations.
After each vignette, parents were asked about the causes of their child’s emotions, particularly regarding dispositional attributions. They rated on a 5-point scale how likely they thought their child’s emotions had a dispositional cause (e.g., “[Name child] is an emotional child”). Parents also rated their likely reactions on a 5-point scale, including emotion-dismissing reactions (e.g., “Tell [name child] to stop overreacting”) and emotion-coaching reactions (e.g., “Reassure [name child] that it is okay to cry when hurt”).
To measure the level of internalizing and externalizing problems in their children, parents completed the Child Behavior Checklist 1.5-5, a widely used assessment.
The researchers found that more dispositional attributions made by parents about their child’s emotions were associated with more behavioral problems in their children, both for internalizing and externalizing behaviors. In other words, when parents tend to attribute their child’s emotional struggles or reactions to the child’s inherent disposition (rather than considering external factors or context), it was linked to an increase in behavioral issues in their children.
These associations were explained by parents’ emotion-dismissing (for both internalizing and externalizing behavior) and emotion-coaching reactions (for internalizing behavior only).
“When parents attribute children’s emotion expression to stable causes within the child (e.g., ‘my child is a highly emotional child’) this is associated with more behavior problems in their children,” Endendijk told PsyPost. “We found this effect for both for both internalizing and externalizing emotions and behaviors. These effects could be explained by how parents responded to their children’s emotion expression. For instance, parents who made more dispositional attributions about their child’s sadness were more likely to reject these emotions, and this was subsequently associated with more internalizing problems of the child.”
In practical terms, this finding suggests that parents who consistently believe that their child’s emotional reactions are a fixed part of their personality may inadvertently contribute to the child’s behavioral problems.
Regarding gender differences, the relation between parental dispositional attributions about internalizing emotions and emotion-dismissing reactions was stronger for boys than for girls. But no other significant gender differences were observed.
“We found limited differences between boys and girls in how parents’ attributions about emotions were related to their reactions to these emotions and to children’s problem behavior,” Endendijk said. “We expected to find more gender differences because in previous research people attributed women’s emotions more to internal causes than they did for men’s emotions.”
“In addition, men and boys are more likely to develop externalizing problems, whereas women and girls are more likely to develop internalizing problems. We speculate that more pronounced gender differences might be found in adolescence, a period in which girls might be particularly sensitive to parents’ negative interpretations of their emotions.”
While the study provides important insights into the relationship between parents’ attributions and their child’s emotions, there are some limitations to consider. For instance, the study relies on hypothetical scenarios presented through vignettes, which may not fully capture the complexity of real-life parent-child interactions. Parents’ responses to hypothetical situations may differ from their actual behaviors with their children.
“This study relied on an experimental design with vignettes of situations that elicit several emotions in hypothetical children,” Endendijk said. “Parents had to envision their own child in the vignettes. Although this approach is common in the attribution literature, parents’ attributions and reactions in response to the vignettes might be very different from their reactions to actual situations with their child. It might be interesting to observe parents’ reactions to children’s emotion expressions in a more naturalistic setting, such as their home.”
Additionally, the study’s sample predominantly consisted of highly educated and married parents. This limited diversity in the sample could affect the generalizability of the findings to a broader population.
Nevertheless, the new findings underscore the significance of parental attributions and reactions in shaping children’s emotional and behavioral outcomes.
“These findings show that it is important to make parents aware of the causes they attribute to their children’s emotions,” Endendijk told PsyPost. “It is essential that parents know the possible consequences of attributing children’s emotions to stable causes within the child for the development of problems, such as depression, anxiety, and aggression.”
The study, “Associations between parental dispositional attributions, dismissing and coaching reactions to children’s emotions, and children’s problem behaviour moderated by child gender“, was authored by Arissa Riemens, Christel M. Portengen, and Joyce J. Endendijk.