October 17, 2007 / 6:38 PM / 12 years ago

Too much support may hamper kids' development

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - 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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