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:
- 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
- Children develop anxiety disorders: Too often the problem goes unrecognized http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2012/10/21/children-develop-anxiety-disorders.html