• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 14th August, 2014

Targeting emotion talk in high-risk homes

Children from high-risk homes tend to have more trouble staying cool in emotionally charged situations. Their mothers are also less likely to coach their children on how to understand and display their emotions, new research finds. The good news is that this provides direction for family programmes.

The family home can have a large impact on the way young children learn to manage and understand their emotions. Kids living in high-risk families where there is little money but a lot of stress, and in the worst cases even abuse or neglect, tend to be less able to control their emotions. Without emotion control, youngsters can become aggressive or withdrawn.

Understanding and controlling emotions is called ‘emotional regulation.’ Emotional regulation is an umbrella term for two processes: sensitivity to events (how quickly we respond to an emotional event, and how long it takes us to recover) and the ability to manage our emotions.

Children learn emotional regulation at least partly from their parents. Talking about on past negative events is a key learning opportunity for children. Parents who provide this sort of “emotion coaching” acknowledge, validate and guide children’s understanding of their feelings. This coaching is associated with less childhood behavioural problems, higher achievement in school, and better relationships with peers.

A research study looked at maternal emotion coaching in relation to children’s emotional regulation and family risk factors. Seventy-four preschool children (aged 3-4) and their mothers took part.

Participants completed questionnaires that focused on issues such as family finance, how the family expresses emotion, and children’s ability to express their emotions.

Mothers were also asked to discuss a mildly upsetting memory with their child – a time when a favorite toy broke, or the child couldn’t go somewhere he or she wanted to go – so the researchers could examine how the mums did “emotion coaching.”

The researchers found that in families with lots of risks, mothers provided children with less guidance on how to manage their feelings and children found it harder to control their emotions. Interestingly, the relationship between family risk factors and children’s emotional control was modest. This suggests that many children are resilient and progress despite poor family circumstances.

Mothers who did more emotion coaching had kids who were less sensitive to emotionally-charged events, but emotion coaching was not related to children’s ability to manage their emotions.

Despite interesting results, the study does have limitations. First, it took place in a lab, which does not reflect the context of the family home. Second, emotion coaching about a past event may differ from present, continuous emotion coaching. Third, the sample was not representative of a wider population, with a third of the mothers who participated having been referred to local service agencies for child maltreatment. And finally, it’s possible that causality works both ways. Maybe, in addition to better emotion coaching from mothers causing kids to be calmer, calmer kids encourage mums to talk more about emotions.

The research does, however, provide some rationale for interventions that encourage maternal emotion coaching. Interventions targeting parents’ ability to coach their children’s emotions are already being implemented in Australia. The Tuning in to Kids (TIK) programme aims to strengthen parents’ emotion coaching and decrease child behaviour problems.

If better parental emotion coaching can improve children’s emotional regulation, this may provide a more immediate source of change for high-risk families than changing the family’s home situation, which may be a long-term project.

 Ellis, B., Alisic, E., Reiss, A., Dishion, T., & Fisher, P. (2013). Emotion Regulation Among Preschoolers on a Continuum of Risk: The Role of Emotion Coaching. Journal of Child and Family Studies, DOI: 10.1007/s10826-013-9752-z

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