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This study investigated parents’ emotion-related beliefs, experience, and expression, and children’s recognition of their parents’ emotions with 40 parent-child dyads. Parents reported beliefs about danger and guidance of children’s emotions. While viewing emotion-eliciting film clips, parents self-reported their emotional experience and masking of emotion. Children and observers rated videos of parents watching emotion-eliciting film clips. Fathers reported more masking than mothers and their emotional expressions were more difficult for both observers and children to recognize compared with mothers’ emotional expressions. For fathers, but not mothers, showing clearer expressions was related to children’s general skill at recognizing emotional expressions. Parents who believe emotions are dangerous reported greater masking of emotional expression. Contrary to hypothesis, when parents strongly believe in guiding their child’s emotion socialization, children showed less accurate recognition of their parents’ emotions.
Theorists and researchers who study parental socialization of emotion have increasingly recognized the importance of parents’ beliefs, attitudes, and attributions about children’s emotions. Dix (1991, 1992, 1993) hypothesized that parents’ attributions about their children influence how they react emotionally toward their children, and subsequently, how they socialize their children. Dunsmore and Halberstadt (1997) proposed that parents’ beliefs about emotions and their emotionally expressive behavior work together to help children create their own self- and world schemas about emotion. Gottman and colleagues similarly proposed that parents’ beliefs and behaviors regarding emotion, that is, their “meta-emotion theories and coaching” affect important life outcomes for children (Gottman, Katz, & Hooven, 1996, 1997; Katz, Wilson, & Gottman, 1999).
In the current study, we examined how parents’ beliefs about their role in guiding their child’s emotion socialization and about the potential danger of emotions were linked to (a) parents’ own emotional experience and expression and (b) their children’s recognition of their parents’ emotions in middle childhood. Parents’ emotional experience and expression are important to understand because they influence children’s socio-emotional outcomes, including emotion regulation, emotion knowledge, and social competence (Eisenberg, Cumberland, & Spinrad, 1998). Children’s emotion recognition skill is important to understand because the ability to accurately receive others’ emotional communications is a central component of affective social competence (Halberstadt, Denham, & Dunsmore, 2001) and has been linked to successful peer relations and school adjustment (e.g., Custrini & Feldman, 1989; Denham, 1986; Denham, Bouril, & Belouad, 1994; Nowicki & Duke, 1992; Philippot & Feldman, 1990).
Parents’ expressiveness and skill in clearly expressing emotions have implications for their children’s general emotion recognition skill. For example, preschoolers whose mothers showed more clear emotional expressions had an advantage in recognizing the emotions of other children’s mothers (Daly, Abramovitch, & Pliner, 1980). There is also a crossover effect such that in early childhood parents’ expressivity is positively related to children’s emotion recognition skill, but by later elementary school parents’ expressivity is negatively related to children’s emotion recognition skill (Halberstadt & Eaton, 2003). However, children’s ability, during middle childhood, to recognize what their own parents are feeling has been heretofore unexamined. Indeed, despite the important role parents play in children’s emotion socialization, little research has examined children’s recognition of their own parents’ emotions.
Only one study, to our knowledge, has addressed children’s recognition of their own parents’ emotions. Dunsmore and Smallen (2001) found no difference in children's ability to recognize their own parents’ facial expressions compared to those of a stranger; however, when mothers were high in the expression of positive emotions, their children were better at recognizing positive emotions compared to other children, regardless of whether the expressor was their mother or a female stranger. With male expressors, only children’s age predicted emotion recognition accuracy, regardless of whether the expressor was their father or a male stranger (Dunsmore & Smallen, 2001). We note that the extant literature consistently suggests that adult men show less clear emotional expressions compared with adult women (Buck, Miller, & Caul, 1974; Hall, 1984; Knapp, 1978; Noller, 2001).
When studying children’s emotion recognition skill within family relationships, expressor, perceiver, and relationship effects are all important considerations for understanding nonverbal accuracy (Halberstadt et al., 2001; Kenny & Albright, 1987). The perception of someone’s emotional expression is inextricably confounded with the clarity of the emotional expression. When children accurately recognize their parents’ emotions, does that reflect children’s general skill at emotion recognition, parents’ general skill at expressing emotions clearly, or something specific about children’s attention to parents’ expressive cues? To clarify the contributions of each of these effects, two steps were taken. First, naïve observers judged parents’ emotional expressions, thus providing an independent measure of parents’ expressive clarity (Hall, Rosip, Smith LeBeau, Horgan & Carter, 2006; Snodgrass, Hecht, & Ploutz-Snyder, 1998). Second we included a standard measure of children’s general emotion recognition skill. Thus, a central contribution of this study is our disentanglement of parents’ expressive skill and children’s general emotion recognition skill when predicting children’s relationship-specific recognition of their own parents’ emotions. We also contribute to the literature by examining the socialization influence of parental beliefs about children’s emotions on parents’ emotional experience and expression and children’s recognition of their own parents’ emotions. We turn to this next.
Parents’ emotion-related beliefs and values are theorized to affect parents’ choices of emotion socialization practices (Dix, 1991, 1992, 1993; Dunsmore & Halberstadt, 1997; Eisenberg, Spinrad, & Cumberland, 1998). Because emotion socialization behaviors may sometimes be infrequent yet also highly salient, idiosyncratic, and/or not easily articulated by parents or children, examining parents’ beliefs about emotions may provide an important avenue for understanding the family socialization environment that influences children’s developing emotion recognition skill.
Gottman and colleagues’ (Gottman et al., 1996, 1997) influential work on meta-emotion provided a conceptual framework for our approach to investigating parents’ beliefs about emotions. The meta-emotion construct addresses overarching philosophies parents hold about emotions that encompass beliefs and socialization behaviors. This work distinguishes between emotion coaching, characterized by positive attitudes about negative emotions and parents’ active acknowledgement of and verbal coaching about children’s negative emotions, and emotion dismissing, characterized by devaluing, minimization, and ignoring of children’s negative emotions. No research on meta-emotion has addressed emotion knowledge or nonverbal accuracy per se. However, research with preschoolers, elementary school age children, and adolescents demonstrates positive effects of parents’ emotion coaching on children’s emotion regulation, social behavior, internalizing symptoms and behavior problems (Katz & Gottman, 1997; Katz & Hunter, 2007; Katz & Windecker-Nelson, 2004, 2006; Lagacé-Séguin & Coplan, 2005; Lagacé-Séguin & d’Entremont, 2006; Lunkenheimer, Shields, & Cortina, 2007; Shipman, Schneider, & Fitzgerald, 2007; Stocker, Richmond, Rhoades & Kiang, 2007).
Parents’ beliefs about children’s emotions are likely to be multifaceted (Dunsmore & Halberstadt, 1997). Recent empirical work suggests that the meta-emotion construct combines two dimensions: belief about acceptability of emotions, and belief about active emotion socialization (Hakim-Larson, Parker, Lee, Goodwin, & Voelker, 2006). When the belief about whether negative emotions are acceptable is disaggregated from active emotion coaching, each has differentiated influence on children’s outcomes. With preschoolers, maternal awareness of her child’s negative emotions was related to children’s positive engagement with peers, whereas maternal emotion coaching was related to children’s lower engagement in negative peer play (Katz & Windecker-Nelson, 2004). With adolescents, maternal acceptance of her own negative emotions was associated with adolescents’ higher self-esteem and with both lower externalizing and lower internalizing problems, whereas maternal emotion coaching was associated only with adolescents’ lower internalizing problems (Katz & Hunter, 2007). Furthermore, though emotion coaching and emotion dismissing may seem to be opposite parental emotional socialization styles, observational work with children in middle childhood suggests that these may be orthogonal constructs. Indeed, parents who engaged in both coaching and dismissal of children’s negative emotions had children with the lowest emotional dysregulation (Lunkenheimer et al., 2007).
Therefore, from the meta-emotion construct, we drew two dimensions of parental beliefs that might be relevant to parents’ emotional experience and expression and children’s recognition of parents’ emotions. The first was parents’ belief about the lack of acceptability or potential danger of emotions. The second was parents’ belief about the importance of their active guidance of their child’s emotion socialization.
Though there has been little research on the parental belief that emotions can be dangerous, one study has demonstrated an association between parents’ belief that emotions can be dangerous and their children’s use of avoidance and distraction as ways of coping with their emotions following a set of terrorist attacks (Halberstadt, Thompson, Parker, & Dunsmore, in press). We chose to examine parents’ belief about the lack of acceptability or potential danger of children’s emotions because we expected this belief to relate to parents’ emotional experience. Parents who believe emotions are dangerous for children might find emotion-related stimuli and situations to be more stressful, and therefore experience greater emotional arousal compared with parents who believe emotions are not dangerous for children. Parents who believe emotions are dangerous for children might also attempt to mask their emotional expression more than parents who believe emotions are not dangerous for children.
Because parents’ emotional experience may affect their expressive clarity, it is possible that parents’ belief that emotions are dangerous might indirectly affect parents’ expressive clarity through association with parents’ emotional experience. However, the direction of such a relationship is unclear. Intraindividually, greater reaction to emotion-related stimulation is associated with more expression of emotion (Buck et al., 1974; Davidson, Prkachin, Mills, & Lefcourt, 1994; Gross & Levenson, 1993; Mauss et al., 2005, for happiness but not sadness; Soussignan, 2002; Zuckerman, Klorman, Larrance, & Spiegel, 1981). Across individuals, those who experience greater autonomic reactivity and tend to show less clear emotional expressions are called internalizers, whereas those who experience less autonomic reactivity and tend to show more clear emotional expressions are called externalizers (Buck, 1977; Buck et al., 1974; Demaree et al., 2006; Lanzetta & Kleck, 1970). Externalizers are more often women than men; internalizers are more often men than women (Buck et al., 1974; Kring & Gordon, 1998). Furthermore, those whose autonomic reactivity and expressivity are positively related are called generalizers, and sometimes further categorized as either high responders (high in both autonomic reactivity and expressivity) or low responders (low in both autonomic reactivity and expressivity; Buck et al., 1974; Cacioppo et al., 1992). Thus, although we expected that parents’ belief that emotions can be dangerous would be positively related to their report of the intensity of their emotional experience and their attempt to mask their emotional experience, we did not predict associations between parents’ belief about danger and parents’ expressive clarity or children’s emotion recognition accuracy. We expected that mothers would show greater expressive clarity compared with fathers; we did not predict differences according to parent sex in parents’ belief that emotions can be dangerous nor in parents’ intensity of emotional experience.
Research with preschool-age children has demonstrated that parents who value teaching children about emotions have children with greater emotion knowledge (Denham & Kochanoff, 2002). More specifically, parents’ belief about guiding their children’s emotions have been linked to preschool children’s emotion talk, emotion understanding, and peer relations (Cervantes & Seo, 2005; Dunsmore & Karn, 2001, 2004), suggesting a linkage to children’s emotion recognition skill. Parents who believe it is important to actively guide their children’s emotion socialization may take more care to be clear in their expression of emotion, therefore showing greater expressive clarity. They may also engage in a variety of socialization practices that teach their child to attend to emotion, thereby resulting in their child’s greater emotion recognition skill. Therefore, we expected parents’ belief that it is important to actively guide their children’s emotion socialization to be positively related to parents’ expressive clarity and to children’s accurate recognition of parents’ emotions. However, we do note that previous research has tended to focus on younger childhood, and it is possible that parents’ active socialization could interfere with children’s emotion recognition skill, especially because children have already mastered basic emotion recognition skills by middle childhood (Pons, Harris, & deRosnay, 2004). We turn to the importance of this developmental period next.
Our focus on middle childhood helps to fill an important gap in the literature. First, despite fruitful research on the influence of parental socialization on emotional development from infancy through early childhood, the field has only recently begun to focus on parental emotion socialization with older children and adolescents (Klimes-Dougan & Zeman, 2007). Yet, changes from early to middle childhood in children’s understanding of their own characteristics and in their ability to make social comparisons may make parent-child nonverbal communication as salient or even more salient to children as a form of social feedback in middle childhood compared with early childhood (Harter, 1990, 1996, 1999).
Second, both children’s nonverbal accuracy (Feldman, Coats, & Spielman, 1996; Nowicki & Duke, 1992, 1994; Philippot & Feldman, 1990) and the complexity of their understanding of emotions (e.g., DePaulo & Rosenthal, 1979; Pons et al., 2004) increase from early to middle childhood. Specifically, most children master understanding of masking emotions in middle childhood (Pons et al., 2004). This understanding of masked emotions coupled with their long familiarity with their parent may give children an advantage in recognizing their parents’ emotions. On the other hand, masked emotions may be more difficult to decode within close relationships, such as the parent-child relationship, compared with less close relationships (Sternglanz & DePaulo, 2004).
Third, in middle childhood, parents’ beliefs may be especially important indices of emotion socialization, compared with earlier childhood. Because children in middle childhood have mastered basic emotion knowledge such as labeling facial expressions and recognizing prototypical causes and consequences of emotions (Pons et al., 2004), parents expect greater self-sufficiency in children’s use of emotional skills in middle childhood compared with earlier childhood (Cassano, Perry-Parish, & Zeman, 2007). Furthermore, because children in middle childhood may have internalized parental expectations about emotional skills, parents may be able to rely on less direct emotion socialization routes in middle childhood compared with earlier childhood (Klimes-Dougan & Zeman, 2007). For all these reasons middle childhood is an important and interesting time in which to study how parents’ beliefs about emotions may influence nonverbal communication within parent-child relationships.
Parents self-reported their beliefs about the danger of emotions and their role in guiding their child’s emotion socialization while children completed a standard emotion recognition task. We then asked parents to view standard emotion-eliciting film clips while their children viewed them through a closed-circuit monitor and tried to guess what emotion their parents were feeling. Parents viewed film clips intended to elicit anger, fear, sadness, and happiness. Parents rated their emotional experience and provided an open-ended descriptor of their emotional experience following each film clip. Parents also rated the extent to which they masked their emotions following each film clip. Children provided an open-ended description of parents’ emotions following each film clip. Later, undergraduate student observers viewed videotapes of parents’ faces and categorized parents’ emotional expression for each film clip. The inclusion of the standard emotion recognition task for children and the use of undergraduate observers allowed us to statistically address the confounds of parents’ expressive clarity and children’s general emotion recognition skill when examining the influence of parents’ beliefs about emotions on children’s recognition of their parents’ emotions.
We expected positive links between parents’ belief that emotions are dangerous and parents’ self-reported (a) intensity of emotional experience and (b) masking of their emotional expression.
We hypothesized that parents’ belief that it is important to actively guide their children’s emotion socialization would be positively related to parents’ expressive clarity.
Even after controlling for parents’ expressive clarity and children’s general emotion recognition skill, we hypothesized that parents’ belief that it is important to actively guide their children’s emotion socialization would be positively related to children’s emotion recognition accuracy with their parent.
Forty 9- to 10-year-old children (50% female) and a parent (70% female; M age = 40.38 years, SD = 10.72 years) participated. Parents reported children’s ethnicity; one child was African-American, 36 were European-American, and three were identified as “other.” Most parents were married (70%), and most were well-educated (82.5% had completed 4-year college degrees; 38% had completed graduate or professional degrees). Parents were paid $20 and children were given a t-shirt and a certificate of appreciation for their participation.
Parent-child dyads visited the Social Development Lab to participate in a single session lasting approximately two hours. Parents first completed the questionnaires. In a separate room, children completed a standard emotion recognition task (described below) and completed an interview regarding their self-description for a separate study. Children were offered a snack after the completion of their interview.
After parents had completed their questionnaires, they were seated before a Dell Latitude D600 desktop computer to view the emotion-eliciting film clips. The computer used MediaLab software to randomize clip presentation and record parents’ responses (Empirisoft Corporation, New York, NY). Parents were instructed to view the film clips and respond as they would when viewing with their child at home. The research assistant started the MediaLab program and then left the room. Parents were given a card to hold up to request assistance in case of equipment failure, or if they wished to halt participation; none did so.
Five clips, validated in previous research for eliciting fear (2 clips)1, happiness, sadness, and anger (1 clip each), were presented in random order (Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998; Gross & Levenson, 1995). Each film clip lasted approximately 1 ½ to 3 minutes. A final beach scene was presented to return parents to a mild positive state (contentment). Prior to each film clip, a one minute rest period occurred. Following each film clip, parents (a) wrote a label for the emotion they experienced the most and (b) rated the intensity of their emotional experience on a Likert-type scale from 1 (not very much) to 5 (the most I have ever felt). Finally, parents indicated how much they masked their emotion on a Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 5 (very much).
Children were seated in an adjacent room, viewing a video monitor. Each child saw his or her own parent’s face and shoulders. Sound was turned off and was not audible through the walls, so children relied solely on parental facial expressions and perhaps upper body movement when rating parents’ emotions. At the end of each film clip, children provided an open-ended response indicating what emotion their parents had felt the most during the film clip.
Parents and children then played a game together for another study.
In the PBACE questionnaire, parents indicate their agreement or disagreement with statements about children’s emotions on a 6-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree). The PBACE includes 11 subscales: (a) positive emotions are valuable, (b) negative emotions are valuable, (c) emotions are dangerous, (d) emotions just are, (e) emotions are controllable, (f) parents’ guidance is important, (g) children can learn about emotions on their own, (h) parental contempt is okay, (i) children use emotions to manipulate, (j) children have a right to emotional privacy, and (k) children’s emotions change over time. The two subscales relevant to our hypotheses were: (a) emotions are dangerous (15 items, alpha = .89, sample item: “When children get angry, it can only lead to problems.”), and (b) parents’ guidance is important (24 items, alpha = .86, sample item: “It is a parent's job to teach their children how to handle their emotions.”). Factor analyses with 1,108 parents of children aged 4 to 10 years old indicate good convergent validity for the scale with parents’ self-reported reactions to children’s negative and positive emotions, and good discriminant validity with parents’ self-reported anxiety and depression (Halberstadt et al., 2008).
The adult facial expressions subscale of the DANVA2 consists of 24 photographs depicting women and men showing facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. For all emotions, half of the photographs show low intensity and half show high intensity expressions. Children were shown each photograph for two seconds and asked to identify each facial expression. Accurate recognition of facial expressions on the DANVA has been linked to girls’ lower externalizing problems (Lancelot & Nowicki, 1997) and, with same-ethnicity stimuli, to girls’ and boys’ greater social competence (Glanville & Nowicki, 2002). The DANVA served as our measure of children’s general recognition skill.
Videotapes of parents viewing the film clips were randomized across participants and across film clip to reduce the possibility of observers guessing which film clip was being viewed in any particular segment. Ten undergraduate students then viewed each video clip and categorized parents’ expressions as showing fear, anger, sadness, happiness, neutrality (just okay), or as indiscernible (Matsumoto et al., 2002). These codes were then compared to parents’ open-ended response regarding their emotional experience during the film clip. Correspondence between students’ categorization and parents’ open-ended responses was scored on a 3-point scale: 0 = no match, 1 = same valence, but not same type, and 2 = same valence and same type. This type of scale is commonly used in studies of children’s emotion understanding (e.g., Denham, McKinley, Couchoud, & Holt, 1990; Garner, Jones, & Miner, 1994), and served as our measure of parents’ expressive clarity. Correspondence of children’s open-ended responses with their parents’ open-ended responses were scored on the same 3-point scale, and served as our measure of children’s recognition of parents’ emotional expressions.
To reduce the number of variables, for each of these measures of correspondence, and for parents’ ratings of their emotional intensity and of how much they masked their emotions, we formed one composite variable by averaging across the five emotion-eliciting film clips. Internal consistency for these composites was variable, ranging from a low of .34 for correspondence between parent and child open-ended responses to a high of .85 for parents’ ratings of their masking (average Cronbach’s alpha = .59). Nonetheless, forming these composites allowed greater power and produced meaningful results.
Descriptive statistics are presented in Table 1. We first tested for differences by parent and child sex. T-tests showed no relation between parent sex and parents’ beliefs about children’s emotions. As Table 1 shows, there were no significant differences in fathers’ and mothers’ ratings of their emotional experience, but there were consistent parent sex differences in regard to emotional expression. Fathers reported masking their emotions more than mothers. Match of both observer and child responses with fathers’ report of their emotional experience was lower than match with mothers’ report of their emotional experience. Overall, these results suggest a pattern of greater clarity in mothers’ versus fathers’ expressiveness. Because of this pattern of findings, we controlled for parent sex in subsequent analyses when predicting masking and match of observer and child responses with parents’ report of their emotional experience.
There was one significant difference according to child sex. Parents of sons rated greater emotional intensity in response to the film clips compared with parents of daughters, t (38) = 3.42, p < .01, M = 3.69, SD = .69 and M = 2.89, SD = .67, respectively. To explore this finding further we composited film clips that focused on male children (scene from The Shining of boy in danger – fear; scene from Cry Freedom of schoolchildren running from police, boy being shot – anger; scene from The Champ of boy crying as father dies – sadness) for comparison with film clips that did not focus on male children (puppy playing with flower – happiness; scene from Cliffhanger of woman falling to her death – fear). For both composites, parents of sons (Ms = 3.6 and 3.7, SDs = .73 and .87 for clips focused on male children and clips not focused on male children, respectively) rated greater emotional intensity compared with parents of daughters, (Ms = 2.98 and 2.75, SDs = .79 and .82 for clips focused on male children and clips not focused on male children, respectively; ts (38) > 2.40, ps < .05). Because of this finding we controlled for child sex in subsequent analyses when predicting parents’ emotional intensity rating. We note that child sex differences were absent for children’s general emotion recognition skill and for children’s match with their parents’ report of their emotional experience, ps > .50.
We next examined correlations among study variables within parent sex (see Table 2). Though our sample of fathers is small, fathers are underrepresented in the developmental literature, and so we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to explore similarities and differences in patterns of relations between beliefs about emotions and nonverbal communication for fathers and mothers. We found significant parent sex differences in two correlations. First, fathers who believed emotions are dangerous believed their guidance was less important, whereas mothers’ belief that emotions are dangerous was unrelated to their belief that their guidance was more important, z = 2.00, p < .05. Second, when fathers had greater expressive clarity (as measured by observers’ match with fathers’ report of their emotional experience), their children were more skilled in general emotion recognition, whereas mothers’ expressive clarity was unrelated to their children’s general emotion recognition skill, z = 2.26, p < .05. We also note one trend for parent sex differences in the pattern of correlations. Mothers who reported experiencing greater emotional intensity also reported more masking, whereas for fathers, there was no relation between the two ratings, z = 1.64, p < .10.
To test our hypotheses we conducted hierarchical regressions in order to examine the influence of both types of parental beliefs simultaneously. We controlled for child sex when predicting parents’ intensity of emotional experience. We controlled for parent sex when predicting parents’ masking and expressive clarity. We controlled for parent sex, parents’ expressive clarity, and children’s general emotion recognition skill when predicting children’s emotion recognition accuracy with their parents.
The first step of the equation predicting parents’ intensity of emotional experience, which included child gender, was significant, F (1, 38) = 11.68, p < .01, R2 = .24. When parents’ beliefs about danger and guidance were added on the second step, the model was again significant, F (3, 36) = 5.09, p < .01, and accounted for an additional 6% of the variance. Examination of beta coefficients showed that parents’ belief that children’s emotions are dangerous was marginally and positively related to parents’ report of their emotional intensity, whereas parents’ belief that their guidance is important was unrelated to parents’ report of their emotional intensity. Please see Table 3.
The first step of the equation predicting parents’ masking, which included parent sex, was significant, F (1, 38) = 5.97, p < .05, R2 = .14. Adding parents’ beliefs about danger and guidance on the second step accounted for an additional 14% of the variance and again resulted in a significant model, F (3, 36) = 4.71, p < .01. Examination of beta coefficients showed that parents’ belief that children’s emotions are dangerous was significantly positively related to parents’ report of their masking, whereas parents’ belief that their guidance is important was unrelated to masking. Please see Table 4.2
Step One of this regression equation included parent sex and was significant, F (1, 38) = 5.46, p < .05, R2 = .13. Including parents’ beliefs about danger and guidance on Step Two accounted for less than 1% additional variance and resulted in a non-significant model, F (3, 36) = 1.86, p > .10, R2 = .13, β = −.01 for danger and .09 for guidance.
The first step of the equation predicting children’s recognition of their parents’ emotions included parent sex and was significant, F (1, 38) = 14.68, p < .001, R2 = .28. Parents’ expressive clarity, measured by observers’ match with parents’ open-ended response, and children’s general emotion recognition skill were included on Step Two. This accounted for an additional 4% of the variance and again resulted in a significant model, F (3, 36) = 5.68, p < .01, though neither beta coefficient was significant. Adding parents’ beliefs about danger and guidance on Step Three accounted for an additional 11% of the variance and again resulted in a significant model, F (5, 34) = 5.23, p < .01. Examination of the beta coefficients showed that parents’ belief that emotions are dangerous was unrelated to children’s recognition of their parents’ emotions, whereas parents’ belief that their guidance is important was significantly negatively associated with children’s recognition of their parents’ emotions. Please see Table 5.
Our goal was to investigate how parents’ beliefs about children’s emotions might be linked to parents’ own emotional experience and expression, and to children’s recognition of parents’ facial expressions in middle childhood. We first address the parent and child sex differences in our results. We then address each of our hypotheses in turn. We conclude by noting the strengths and limitations of our study and suggesting future research directions.
Fathers rated their emotional experiences similarly to mothers, yet reported greater masking relative to mothers. In addition, fathers provided less clear emotional expressions compared to mothers, as judged by their children and objective observers. These findings are consistent with the widely noted gender differences in expressiveness (e.g., Brody & Hall, 2008; Hall, 1984) and in expressive clarity (Buck, Miller, & Caul, 1974; Hall, 1984; Knapp, 1978; Noller, 2001). These findings provide further evidence that these gender differences are not a function of women experiencing greater emotionality, but may be at least partially due to men choosing to mask their emotions more than women (Averill, 1982; Kring & Gordon, 1998).
The patterns of correlations for mothers and fathers are also consistent with extant research showing gendered patterns of parental emotion socialization. For mothers, there was no relation between beliefs about danger and guidance. For fathers, however, there was a trend for the belief that emotions are dangerous to be negatively related to the belief that parental guidance is important. This fits well with findings that fathers use avoidant and distraction strategies more than mothers to cope with children’s negative emotions (McElwain, Halberstadt, & Volling, 2007). Differences in parents’ approach or avoidance of emotion-related situations could have implications for gendered socialization of emotion schemas as well as coping strategies.
Parents may also be more likely to believe it is the mothers’ role to teach children about emotions rather than the fathers’. Undergraduates recall mothers being more active than fathers in responding to their emotions when they were children, both in supporting and discouraging emotional expression (Garside & Klimes-Dougan, 2002). Mothers may be more likely than fathers to perceive a need to actively guide their children’s emotions even when they find emotions to be dangerous because they may perceive emotion socialization as part of their parenting “territory.” Fathers who believe that emotions are dangerous, however, may feel that they can leave emotion socialization to their child’s mother. Future research examining joint socialization of mothers and fathers will be important to address these possibilities.
We also found that mothers’ expressive clarity was not related to their children’s general emotion recognition skill, but fathers’ expressive clarity was. Combined with the lower expressive clarity of fathers compared with mothers, these results are consistent with the developmental progression found between parents’ expressivity and children’s general emotion recognition skill (Halberstadt & Eaton, 2003). In earlier childhood, greater parental expressiveness predicts children’s emotion recognition skill, but at approximately the age of the children in our study, lower expressiveness begins to become a better predictor of children’s emotion recognition skill. Our results suggest that the developmental progression noted in the literature may also depend on the expressive clarity in children’s families. With a parent whose emotions are more difficult to recognize, children may continue to accrue advantages in general emotion recognition skill through later ages by learning to attend to subtler and more ambiguous cues.
These results may also suggest that mothers’ and fathers’ expressive clarity may play different roles at different times in children’s development. In other words, whereas mothers’ expressive clarity may be initially a good predictor of children’s emotion recognition skill, fathers’ relative lack of expressive clarity may become a better predictor of emotion recognition skill as children get older, because children are now ready for more subtle and ambiguous cues. Fathers may also be less predictable in their expressiveness compared with mothers (Parke & McDowell, 1998). This again may lead to fathers’ expressiveness being more influential at developmentally later time points compared with mothers’ expressiveness because children may need greater cognitive maturation to perceive fathers’ relatively less predictable patterns of expressive cues.
We are struck by how large the parent sex differences are considering the self-selected nature of our sample. Not only was the sample fairly homogenous in regard to high education levels, but also parents volunteered to spend two hours of their time with their child in a study involving experiencing, expressing, and discussing emotions. If anything, we expected that fathers who agreed to participate in our study would be more similar to mothers in their emotional expressivity and patterns of beliefs compared with fathers in general.
We also note the lack of sex differences in children’s emotion recognition skill. Extant literature has been somewhat mixed in this regard, with some researchers noting an advantage for girls in emotion recognition skill compared to boys (Hall, 1984, 2001; Knapp, 1978), and others finding little to no evidence for sex differences in children’s emotion recognition skill, especially of facial expressions (Eisenberg & Lennon, 1983; Nowicki & Duke, 1994). McClure’s (2000) meta-analysis indicates small but significant child sex differences favoring girls for recognition of facial expressions of emotions. Furthermore, this advantage for girls is consistent across a variety of assessment tools, including the DANVA. We were concerned that our small sample size and limited power may have precluded replicating this effect. In our sample, however, the effect size for child sex differences in general emotion recognition skill measured through the DANVA was very small (d = .018). On the other hand, the effect size for child sex differences in recognition of parents’ emotions (d = .22) was similar to that reported in McClure’s meta-analysis – but in the opposite direction, with boys showing a small and non-significant advantage in recognizing their parents’ emotions compared with girls. The two other studies on children’s recognition of parents’ emotions also do not support child sex differences in children’s emotion recognition skill with parents (Daly et al., 1980; Dunsmore & Smallen, 2001).
The one child sex difference we did find was in regard to parents’ intensity of emotional experience, with parents of sons reporting greater emotional intensity compared with parents of daughters. In retrospect, the film clips we used, though chosen because they have been validated for effectively and specifically evoking discrete emotions (Gross & Levenson, 1995), may have been more evocative for parents of sons compared with parents of daughters, because three of the five clips focused on male children in situations of threat or loss, and no clips focused on daughters.
Our choice of film clips may not completely account for our finding, however, because parents’ report of emotional intensity was significantly higher for parents of sons compared with parents of daughters even for the film clips that did not focus on male children. Given differential patterns of parental emotional expressions with children, reactions to children’s emotions, and emphases on emotional control with sons compared with daughters, Eisenberg and colleagues (1998) propose that parents may feel that their sons are more at risk for difficulties with negative emotionality compared with their daughters. Thus, even when not directly interacting with their child, knowing that a son is watching them may enhance parents’ intensity of emotional experience more so than knowing that a daughter is watching them.
We found some support for our hypothesis that parents who believe emotions are dangerous would report greater emotional intensity. After accounting for children’s sex, parents’ belief that emotions are dangerous was marginally significant as a predictor of parents’ emotional intensity. It may be that the relation between parents’ belief that emotions are dangerous and parents’ emotional intensity does not exist. However, the effect for child sex was large, and as we note above, our selection of film clips may have inadvertently maximized the effect of child sex, so we believe this hypothesis is worthy of future study. Believing emotions to be potentially dangerous may heighten parents’ sensitivity to emotion-eliciting stimuli, thereby increasing the intensity of their response. Alternatively, one source of parents’ belief that emotions can be dangerous may be their experience of intense emotional responses. Future work including both self-report and physiological indices of emotional arousal may be useful in examining whether there is a causal relation between parents’ belief that emotions are dangerous and their intensity of emotional experience.
We found stronger support for our hypothesis that parents’ belief that emotions are dangerous would relate to their masking of their emotional expression. Even after controlling for the parent sex difference in masking, parents’ belief that emotions are dangerous was significantly positively related to their masking. Despite the controlled nature of our procedures, it makes intuitive sense that when parents believe emotions are dangerous, they would want to protect their children from seeing too much emotion on parents’ faces. In so doing, they may be shielding their children from the opportunity to engage with emotions and explore them. Alternatively, they may also be protecting their children from unnecessary and problematic emotionality. If children model their parents’ expressive style (Halberstadt & Eaton, 2003), these results also suggest that children of parents who believe emotions are dangerous may be likely to engage in greater attempts to mask their own emotions over time.
These hypotheses were not supported. Parents’ expressive clarity was predicted only by parent sex. Perhaps parents’ active socialization efforts are focused more on verbalizations about emotions rather than nonverbal expression of emotions. This may be especially likely by middle childhood, when children have moved on to more nuanced emotional skills and parents are no longer focused on teaching basic emotional expressions. Alternatively, parents’ emotional intensity may overwhelm their ability to focus on effectively socializing their children in situations in which they too are feeling powerful emotions, especially in middle childhood, when parents may view their children as less vulnerable to parents’ emotional expressions compared with earlier childhood.
For children’s recognition of parents’ emotions, the opposite relation to that hypothesized was found. When parents believed they should play an active role in emotion socialization, their children were less accurate in recognizing parents’ emotions. Importantly, this finding held after controlling for parents’ expressive clarity and children’s general emotion recognition skill as well as parent sex. Thus, this negative association between parents’ belief that their guidance of their child’s emotion socialization is important and children’s relationship-specific recognition of parents’ emotions is not confounded by parents’ expressive clarity nor by children’s general emotion recognition skill.
One source of parents’ belief that their guidance is important could be parents’ awareness that their child is having difficulty recognizing parents’ emotions. Alternatively, parents’ active guidance may not always be beneficial for 9- and 10-year-old children. For example, if parents’ verbalizations about emotions contradict their nonverbal expression of emotions, or if their posed emotional expression is forced rather than natural, children may become confused. Genuineness in emotional expression is a key aspect of emotional competence (Saarni, 1990). A sense of independence in learning about emotions within the family may resonate for children with the increasing autonomy in close personal relationships outside the family that is characteristic of middle childhood. Conversely, a sense that parents are controlling learning about emotions may communicate lack of confidence in the child’s emotional skill to the child in middle childhood. We note again that this finding is specific to children’s recognition of parents’ emotions, as parents’ belief that their guidance is important is unrelated to children’s general emotion recognition skill. Rather, this belief seems to be associated with a specific deficit in parent-child nonverbal communication that is not accounted for by parents’ general expressive clarity nor by children’s general emotion recognition skill. For this reason, we side with the interpretation that too much parental guidance at this age may interfere with children’s recognition of parental emotions, rather than the interpretation that deficits in children’s emotion recognition skill may lead to parents’ emphasis on guiding their child’s emotion socialization. Parents’ active guidance in middle childhood may need to be subtler and more child-driven than in early childhood.
One strength of our study was the multifaceted assessment of parent-child nonverbal communication which allowed us to disentangle parents’ expressive clarity, children’s general emotion recognition skill, and children’s relationship-specific emotion recognition. Our inclusion of fathers as well as mothers allowed us to parse effects of parent sex from effects of parental beliefs and parent expressive clarity and to explore different patterns of mothers’ and fathers’ beliefs and expressive clarity and their children’s emotion recognition. Finally, we relied on standard emotion-eliciting film clips, a standard emotion recognition task, and a standard technique for assessing expressive clarity.
We did not anticipate that parents of boys would experience greater emotional intensity compared to parents of girls, and we now recognize the importance of developing an emotion-eliciting task that is equally evocative for parents of daughters and sons. With a standardized set of film clips focusing on both female and male children, future research could address the important question of whether parents of boys experience greater emotion themselves in emotion-eliciting events compared to parents of girls. A second question would then be whether such an effect was partially a result of parents trying to suppress their own emotionality in order to reduce their sons’ emotionality in accordance with societal rules for boys’ and girls’ expressiveness. This sort of study might be able to capture some of the processes of parental socialization.
We note three other limitations of the present study. First, we had a small sample size. Nonetheless, our study yielded a rich array of theoretically consistent findings. A larger sample might have allowed other effects to emerge. Second, we do not know the extent to which parents’ beliefs are related to their emotion socialization strategies in their everyday lives. As we noted earlier, it may be that parental beliefs are linked to heterogeneous emotion socialization strategies. Examining associations between parents’ emotion-related beliefs and socialization strategies may provide a fruitful avenue for uncovering trajectories of continuity and change in parent and child emotion-related goals and nonverbal dialogue. Third, our sample was comprised of predominantly middle-class, European-American families. It is possible that culture and class differences exist, not only in parents’ emotion-related beliefs, but perhaps also in the interrelations among parental beliefs, emotional experience, emotional expression, and children’s emotion recognition. For example, concern about emotion as dangerous may differ between families from historically oppressed groups and families from historically dominant groups (Beale & Halberstadt, 2007). Thus, in future work, we recommend examining linkages between parents’ beliefs about children’s emotions and children’s emotion-related outcomes with families that vary in terms of ethnicity and social class.
Finally, comparing parent-child nonverbal communication of negative with positive emotions will be important for future research. Recently Fredrickson and colleagues (Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larkin, 2003; Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004) found that positive emotions can buffer individuals from negative emotions and negative life events. Therefore, addressing how parental beliefs may influence expression and recognition of both positive and negative emotions is important for a more nuanced understanding of nonverbal communication within family relationships.
In conclusion, we found rich and intriguing associations among parents’ emotion-related beliefs, experience, and expression, and their children’s recognition of parents’ emotions. Overall, our results suggest that in middle childhood, when parents believe that emotions can be dangerous, they may report more intense emotional experiences and they report greater attempts to mask their emotions. When parents believe it is important for them to guide their child’s emotion socialization, their children show less accurate recognition of parents’ emotions. Increasing effort has been focused in early childhood and elementary education to improve children’s socio-emotional competence (e.g., Domitrovich, Cortes, & Greenberg, 2007; Greenberg, Kusché, Cook, & Quamma, 1995; Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2004). The home, however, continues to be an important context for children’s emotion socialization. Understanding both parent-driven and child-driven pathways linking parents’ beliefs and parent-child nonverbal communication will be important for future research to identify pathways leading to children’s socio-emotional competence within developmental contexts. Our research provides an important beginning for understanding the influences of parental beliefs about emotions on parents’ and children’s emotion-related experiences and skills.
Funding was provided by R03 53572 from NICHD and by an AdvanceVT Seed Grant. We express appreciation to Israel Christie, Amy Gravley, Holland Omar, Ryoichi Noguchi, Chad Stephens, and Bradford Wiles for assistance with programming, data collection, and coding. We are grateful to the families who participated in this research. Portions of this manuscript were presented at the 2006 Emotion Preconference at the meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Palm Springs, CA and at the 2006 meeting of the International Society for Research on Emotions, Atlanta, GA.
1We pilot-tested all clips with undergraduate and graduate students who were not parents. For fear, one clip (from The Shining) was less effective with the pilot-testers than the other (from Cliffhanger). However, because the clip from The Shining involved a child in peril we thought it might be more effective with our parent participants than our non-parent pilot-testers. To ensure that at least one fear clip worked for our parents, we included both. Based on parents’ ratings, both worked equally well, and so both were retained in analyses.
2When parents’ emotional intensity was also controlled on Step One, the model again remained significant on Step Two with the inclusion of parents’ beliefs about danger and guidance, and parents’ belief that emotions are dangerous remained a significant positive predictor of parents’ report of masking.
Julie C. Dunsmore, Department of Psychology, Virginia Tech.
Pa Her, Department of Psychology, Virginia Tech.
Amy G. Halberstadt, Department of Psychology, North Carolina State University.
Marie B. Perez-Rivera, Department of Psychology, Virginia Tech.