KIDS
July 12, 2017

Can Parents Be Too Supportive?

Teachers think so, at least in this study of third graders. But the issue may be trickier than that.

Parenting a kid who’s expressing his or her anger or frustration is always tricky — you want to be supportive and let your kid know it’s ok to have these feelings, while trying to help them calm down.

But validating kids' feelings is more complicated than it seems, a new study suggests. Even though parents may feel it helps their child’s social development, the child’s teacher may disagree.

The authors of the new study wanted to look at how the different strategies of dealing with kids’ negative emotions affect their social-emotional development. They define “supportive reactions” from parents as those that both acknowledged the children's negative emotions and the reasons for them. “Non-supportive reactions” were those in which parents tried to deny, minimize or punish children's negative emotions.

The best advice is probably to validate your kids’ feelings while still asking them — and helping them — to bring their emotions under control.

Because parents’ and teachers’ opinions of social development in a child are known to not always be in perfect agreement, the team wanted to see how each would rate a child’s social-emotional development.

All the kids in the study were in the third grade. Parents filled out questionnaires to understand how supportive or non-supportive they were when their kids were experiencing negative emotions. They combined problem-focused reactions (‘help my child think of places he/she hasn't looked yet’) and emotion-focused reactions (‘distract my child by talking about happy things’). They also had the parents themselves rate their child’s social-emotional development, and they had the children’s teachers rate it.

It turned out that the more supportive a parent’s reactions, the better the child’s social-emotional development — when rated by the parents. But when rated by the child’s third grade teacher, parental support for negative emotions didn’t help. In fact, these children were rated by their teachers as having less social-emotional development, and more social-emotional problems.

“It's not clear if the parents are causing these problems by hovering or providing too much support when less support is needed, if the parents are rightfully providing more support because their children are experiencing these social and emotional problems, or if the children are exhibiting very different emotional and social behaviors at home than they are at school,” said study author, Vanessa Castro, in a news release.

It could be that more supportive parents are being supportive because the child is already having more social-emotional problems. Or, as the authors write, “mothers’ over-supportiveness may contribute to children's social and emotional maladjustment over time.” Or it could be that parental support helps kids regulate themselves at home, but not at school, where they may have more trouble.

It's also possible that parents and teachers simply have different ways of rating kids. “Parents may, for example, evaluate a child's current behavior with respect to the child's previous behavior and at younger ages,” write the authors. “In contrast, teachers may evaluate a child's behavior relative to the many other same-age students in a given classroom or across classrooms.”

More research needs to be done to understand all the effects of distinct parenting methods, and particularly the different perceptions between parents and teachers, but the study certainly gives parents some things to think about — how our reactions help shape our kids’ abilities to deal with their own emotions, both at home and outside it.

If your child is having significant behavioral or emotional problems, it’s probably best to consult a professional. But if it’s the everyday emotional reactions that all parents deal with, frustrated desires for screen time, junk food or whatever, the best advice is probably to validate your kids’ feelings while still asking them — and helping them — to bring their emotions under control.

The study was carried out by a team at Northwestern University and published in the journal Social Development.

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