Thursday, 27 September 2012

Parents underestimate their children's worry levels and overestimate their optimism

It's well-established that parents frequently overestimate their children's intelligence and the amount of exercise they get. Now a team led by Kristin Lagattuta has uncovered evidence suggesting that parents have an unrealistically rosy impression of their kiddies' emotional lives too. It's a finding with important implications for clinicians and child researchers who often rely on parental reports of young children's psychological wellbeing.

It's previously been assumed that children younger than seven will struggle to answer questions about their emotions. Undeterred, Lagattuta and her colleagues simplified the language used in a popular measure of older children's anxiety and they developed a pictorial scoring system that involved the children pointing to rectangles filled with different amounts of colour. Time was taken to ensure the child participants understood how to use the scale.

An initial study with 228 psychologically healthy children aged 4 to 11 from relatively affluent backgrounds found that the children's answers to oral questions about their experience of worry (including general anxiety, panic, social phobia and separation anxiety) failed to correlate with their parents' (usually the mother's) written responses to questions about the children's experience of worry. Specifically, the parents tended to underestimate how much anxiety their children experienced.

A second study was similar, but this time the researchers ensured the parents and children answered items that were worded in exactly the same way; the parents were reassured that it was normal for children to experience some negative emotion; and the parents were able to place their completed questionnaires in envelopes for confidentiality. Still the children's answers about their own emotions failed to correlate with parents' answers, with the parents again underestimating the amount of worry experienced by their children.

A revealing detail in this study was that parents also answered questions about their own emotions. Their scores for their own emotions correlated with the answers they gave for their children's experiences. "These data suggest that even parents from a low-risk, non-clinical sample may have difficulty separating their emotional perspective from that of their child," the researchers said.

Finally, 90 more children aged 5 to 10 answered questions about their optimism, whilst their parents also answered questions about their own and their children's optimism. Again, parents' and children's verdicts on the children's emotions failed to correlate, with the parents now overestimating their children's experience of optimism. And once more, parents' own optimism was related to how they interpreted their children's optimism.

Lagattuta and her colleagues admitted that it's theoretically possible that the children were the ones showing a distorted view of their own emotions, and it's the parents who were painting the true picture. However, they think this is highly unlikely. For starters it's revealing that parents underestimated their children's negative emotion and yet over-estimated their positive emotion, which argues against the idea that the children were simply answering more conservatively, or giving systematically extreme answers in one direction. Moreover, the new findings fit with the wider literature showing how parents tend to have an unrealistically rosy impression of their children's wellbeing. An obvious study limitation is the focus on middle class US participants, so there is of course a need to replicate with people from other backgrounds and cultures.

"From the standpoint of research and clinical practice, this mismatch between parent and child perceptions raises a red flag," the researchers concluded. "Internally consistent self-report data can be acquired from young children regarding their emotional experiences. Obtaining reports from multiple informants - including the child - needs to be the standard."
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  ResearchBlogging.orgLagattuta KH, Sayfan L, and Bamford C (2012). Do you know how I feel? Parents underestimate worry and overestimate optimism compared to child self-report. Journal of experimental child psychology, 113 (2), 211-32 PMID: 22727673

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

12 comments:

  1. I found this blog post very interesting. From the reading studies show that parents are underestimate their children’s' worries and anxieties. This I have seen first hand to be true. Even in my own personal experiences with my own child I had a situation where she was experiencing a lot of anxiety and worry when she started kindergarten. At first I kind of underestimated it thought it was nothing and just tried to down play it. But eventually I took her to her doctor and was told she really did have a true medical problem dealing with anxiety. I can see where parents sometimes would compare their own personal past anxieties with their children’s present worries. Especially if you have a child who does not communicate their feelings or emotions parents might not really be in tune with how much their children worry and fear.

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  2. I also found this blog post interesting and not surprising. I am in Psychology 101 and we are studying emotions and stress in class right now. I think that adults sometimes forget how difficult it can be to be a child; stressors are prevalent in any lifestyle and age. I remember feeling uncertain, lonely, and overwhelmed quite frequently as a kid, and I think it's important to keep communication open and constant between parent and child, especially emphasis on negative emotions and stress as being normal and moderately healthy.

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  3. This provides a great insight as on how parents view their children. I think some of this can be explained by how parents tend only to reflect on the positive emotions they see in their chidren. Parents tend to only be able to see the outward appearance of their children and not truly how the child feels. I can relate to this as I have always been more secretive to my parents while being more open to my brother. Parents can change the blind eye that they have on their children by talking to them about their feelings. Also by sometimes explaining how how evertything is okay and comforting your children so they will worry less.

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  4. Megan G.3:55 am

    The idea that the parents cannot differentiate their own feelings with their child's touches on the concept of interpersonal engagement. This means that emotion dimension results from your personal relationships and connections. Because the parents have a close relationship with their children they feel like they can connect with the child's feelings and this gets in the way of their objectivity. By sympathizing with the child they are essentially combining their emotional state with the child's, the parents have learned to interpret their own emotions over the years which make them dismiss things that a child normally wouldn't.

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    1. Megan G.3:59 am

      that time stamp should be 9:55 PM

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  5. i think this article is very interesting because it shows how parents don't try to relate to their kids because they are more concerned with looking like the perfect parent. Of course parents aren't going to say anything negative about their child's emotions or stress levels because they wouldn't want to seem like a bad parent.Showing that they have "the perfect child" is much more important then noting that their child has chaining emotions. Parents don't try to relate to their kids like they should since they too used to be a kid. Kids are just learning what stress is and have no clue how to handle it. Kids need their parents to teach them how to cope with stress and that it isn't the end of the world. Parents need to be able to step into the kids shoes and see what their problems are, even if they seem small, they are intense and life chaining in the eyes of a child. If parents don't try to establish that sort of relationship with their kids then the kids are always going to have that struggle with how to deal with their stress.

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  6. I’m surely coming again to read these articles and blogs
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  7. I agree Megan, as adults we learn to disregard potential stress when our previous experience of a situation tells us that It results in positive experience. as we feel connected to our children's emotional we disregard these negitive emotions for them, as we expect them to overcome them.

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  8. I'd be interested to see a comparative study that did the same thing, but instead of comparing parents vs. children, compared adults vs. adults (spouses, friends, co-workers, etc.). Perhaps adults simply have a "rosier" view of other people in general and not just their kids?

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    1. hi Ted, I think you may be onto something - Check this earlier Digest item. Other people may experience more misery than you realise

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    2. I wonder what the child's view of the parent is... I'll do some research and come back if I find anything.

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  9. This article is quite interesting, however, all through my life I feel my parents, and those of my colleagues, have underestimated how happy we are, even as we grow older. Does this phenomenon stop as the children in question peak adulthood?

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