Kids May Benefit from Less Support
> 10/18/2007 12:30:55 PM

When children become frustrated or angry, it's only natural that their parents will want to comfort them, but research indicates that parents who provide too much support for their children may actually hinder their emotional development. A recent study shows that children demonstrated a higher level of emotional maturity and were less likely to be involved in conflicts with peers when one parent showed a high level of support and the other did not.

The researchers, led by Dr. Nancy L McElwain of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, conducted two experiments with over 50 pre-school children. In the first experiment, they questioned the children about situations in which they might experience both positive and negative emotions and then evaluated the children's emotional maturity. In the second experiment, they observed each of the children during play sessions with a friend. The children were initially allowed to play with many toys, but later they were given only one toy and told to share. The researchers then examined how often the children were involved in conflicts with their friend. During both experiments, parents filled out a questionnaire assessing their level of support. Both experiments indicated that children who experienced the least amount of conflict with others and demonstrated the greatest emotional maturity had one parent who showed a high level of support and one parent who showed a low level of support.

The researchers explain that having a low level of support does not necessarily mean ignoring the child or punishing the child for becoming upset. Rather, parents can support their children by stepping away from a stressful situation instead of becoming actively involved in it. The researchers describe the most beneficial scenario as one in which one parent comforts the child, helping him to resolve whatever problem had caused him distress in the first place, while the second parent remains nearby but apart, giving the child more space in which to process his emotions. In this situation, children also witness their parents reacting to a negative situation in different ways, one by offering comfort, the other by stepping away. This may explain why these children demonstrate a more mature understanding of the variety and complexity of emotions that we experience. When both parents overwhelm their child with comfort and support, they may shelter him from unpleasant feelings, and they also prevent him from learning how to cope with these emotions. Children need emotional support from their parents, but too much support may hinder rather than improve their emotional development.

The study did have some limitations. For example, it is possible that children who were given the most support by their parents had preexisting emotional or social problems. However, this study indicates just how greatly parents can influence their children, and further research should provide insight into how parents' reactions affect their children's development.

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