Bridging the Gap between Parent and Child Perception of Emotions

I had an interesting childhood. You could maybe say I “rode some wavez”.   J

On one hand, I lived a rather easy life. My parents were still married, my siblings loved me (even if my brothers pretended not too), I never went hungry, we had spare money to go on vacation (“ARE WE THERE YET?!”), and I had a trunk full of sparkly princess dresses. What more could a girl want?

But on the inside, I was obsessively thinking about hurting myself, overly anxious about circumstances and yes, I was one of those “sensitive” children. Those negative emotions are part of how I remember my childhood.

Unfortunately, I did not get diagnosed until I was in graduate school. As such, I find the research discoveries being made in early detection and prevention particularly fascinating. I recently read this study that identifies an important obstacle to early identification of mental illness in children.

Here’s the abstract:

“Three studies assessed parent-child agreement in perceptions of children’s everyday emotions in typically developing 4- to 11-year-old children. Study 1 (N=228) and Study 2 (N=195) focused on children’s worry and anxiety. Study 3 (N=90) examined children’s optimism. Despite child and parent reporters providing internally consistent responses, their perceptions about children’s emotional wellbeing consistently failed to correlate. Parents significantly underestimated child worry and anxiety and overestimated optimism compared to child self-report (suggesting a parental positivity bias). Moreover, parents’ self-reported emotions correlated with how they reported their children’s emotions (suggesting an egocentric bias). These findings have implications for developmental researchers, clinicians, and parents.”

In English, the study indicates parents UNDERestimate the intensity of NEGATIVE emotions their children face. They also OVERestimate the intensity of POSITIVE emotions.  As the abstract suggests, this demonstrates a “parental positivity bias”. This bias is similar to hearing comments like “Susie only gets in trouble at school because she is just so smart the class material is boring her”….”Little Johnny sat on the bench the whole soccer game to give that poor other team a chance”….”My Mikey just has the cutest butt” (oh was that third comment too far? Little Mikey must be an only child…..)

I realize there are many questions and “what ifs” related to this study. If you are a nerd like me and what to see the statistics and research parameters of it, read the full article (citation at end of post). But if you are more normal and don’t enjoy the research aspect, while no study is perfect, trust that this study was published by a team from the University of California in a well respected academic peer reviewed journal, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. So for the purpose of this blog—let’s take that main finding as gospel.

As you can guess, this finding was not surprising to me. My parents would likely have underestimated the frequency and intensity of the anxiety I faced as a child.  But in their defense, if we had been in this study our answers would likely have matched. There is no way I would have admitted on a survey how terrible I was feeling.

How do we fix this problem?  I do not want anxiety disorders and depression to become the new “flavor” of the week; after all, growing up is hard! Anxiety and depression are an expected and normal part of development; majority of the children in this study likely did not suffer from a mental illness. But a few of them might show early signs of a mental illness. Either way, the children could use more support and help handling these complex emotions. As adults we have to bridge this gap between the emotions of the children we interact with and our perceptions of their emotions.

I believe the first step to tackling this problem is to answer the question, “Why does this gap exist?”.  I want to explore the many possible answers to this question—I’ve been looking through research, combing blogs of individuals parenting children with mental illness, and reflecting on my own experience as a child with mental illness. But before I go too far preparing the next blogs, I want your thoughts and input.

Here’s a few questions below to hopefully get some dialog going—but feel free to branch off from them.

  • What can adults do to increase understanding of child emotion?
  • Are children hiding their negative emotions? If so, why?
  • How do you differentiate a mental illness from “normal growing up”?

Here’s the citation to the mentioned article and other related resources:

  1. Lagattuta KH, Sayfan L, and Bamford C (2012). Do you know how I feel? Parents underestimate worry and overestimate optimism compared to child self-report. Journal of experimental child psychology, 113 (2), 211-32
  2. Children develop anxiety disorders: Too often the problem goes unrecognized
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4 thoughts on “Bridging the Gap between Parent and Child Perception of Emotions

  1. LJ says:

    This a good post, and these are good and important questions. I’m in the middle of this sort of situation right now and will continue to be for a very long time. My take? One very important reason that parents misjudge the depth of anxiety/depression in their children is denial. If parents themselves struggle with anxiety and/or depression (and the likelihood that they do is high if their kids do because these issues tend to run in families), AND if these issues are denied, then the parents themselves are ill-equipped to help their children. Or, you’ll face a scenario common to same gender parent-oldest child situation (e.g. Mother and first-born daughter don’t get along because mother sees traits in her oldest daughter that she dislikes in herself so the two don’t get on and communication is hindered or father and first-born son=same situation). In any case, parents who have not made their own differentiation, maturity, and mental health a priority will be unable to make the mental health and well-being a priority in their children because they (the parents) are stuck in denial and maladaptive coping strategies. One has to have a clear picture of what mental health is in order to properly see its absence, even in small increments, in their children. And, when they do start to see a problem in their children, these parents often make it about themselves (egocentrism) and further deny the problem, thus, preventing their children from getting help and, ultimately, themselves.

    • Nicole says:

      Thanks for the thoughts–I’ve yet been in the parent position so I appreciate hearing about it from another point of view. I”m so glad that you are facing and working through it with your daughter now–do you have any “early warning signs”…like before the three men started following her around?

  2. LJ says:

    Ooh, that’s a good question. Early warning signs. Well, I suppose there are early warning signs when we are talking about psychotic disorders, but one sees them over a longer period of time, not exclusively. Schizophrenia spectrum disorders (as schizoaffective disorder is known) does follow a pattern. So, usually, it follows this pattern: A child can often be DXed with ADHD early on. A learning disorder (LD) might follow. This was the case for Grace–ADHD, inattentive type with LD-NOS. Then, a few years later neurological issues might arise that end up being Axis I issues–major depression and anxiety disorders which morph into the Mood Disorder-NOS because no one wants to DX a child younger than 12 with bipolar disorder even if they are presenting as bipolar. This thing is, usually there are psychotic symptoms prior to any mood disorder, which was the case for Grace. She did hear voices, and she did see people in her room–a witch. She just didn’t tell us because she thought it was normal. And, she had some mild paranoia as well. The psychosis increased as the mood disorder increased. So, if one puts all the pieces together and steps back, then one can see it all clearly. Early executive function problems which were missed due to misdiagnosis of ADHD (very common). And, the progression of diagnoses which led to the proper DX of SCZ spectrum. In Grace’s case, she is unusual because she doesn’t externalize meaning there are few behavioral problems. She isn’t violent. She is very sweet and gentle. And, she presents as a bipolar adult–not a bipolar child. I would say that if a child has executive function issues AND is having hallucinations, then seek help. Executive function problems are linked to bipolar disorder and SCZ spectrum disorders.

    • Nicole says:

      THANK YOU for taking the time to really consider and answer this question. I know I appreciate it. As the child, I often do not have the full (or accurate) picture of my story. I will keep this description in mind. Two things stuck out to me. First, Grace didn’t tell you about the voices because she thought it was normal! I think that is true in my story too–and it again raises the question. How do we help children experiencing them? Second, the idea about “putting all the pieces together”. That’s so hard isn’t it? Alot of the time, so many people each hold a piece and it’s difficult to get them all to go together. Thanks again for answering. I enjoy reading about you and your daughter’s journey. (And family!!!)

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