Disturbed parental relationship linked to toddlers being less able to manage their emotions

Photo: Adam Fuller. Creative Commons.

New research has found links between parents’ poor relationship during pregnancy, being unresponsive to a child’s distress eight months after the birth, poor coparenting at 24 months and how the child copes with his or her own strong emotions at 24 months.

The study adds to the growing evidence that parents’ relationship and how they work together in caring for their children are important for the children’s development—suggesting that family services shouldn’t focus on only one primary caregiver.

The study involved 125 families. The researchers, led by Martin Gallegos at the University of Texas at Austin, USA, videotaped interactions and asked experts to score the behaviors observed. Before a child’s birth, parents were asked to discuss changes during the pregnancy, debate an issue they disagreed on and make a plan for an enjoyable activity together.

At eight months, both parents were asked to play with the child, then engage in some routine caregiving tasks such as feeding. Coparenting was tested by challenging both parents and their two-year-olds with a series of tasks that could be completed only through collaboration (prepare a snack, change clothes and do a card-sorting game, all at the same time).

The children’s ability to manage their own emotions was tested with two challenging situations – a snack stuck in the middle of a long tube, and some nice toys in a locked see-through box.

Fathers were less likely to be emotionally responsive to their child at eight months, and the researchers found a link between this behavior on the part of the father and the children’s ability to manage their own emotions 16 months later. They did not find the same link for mothers. The researchers conjecture that perhaps the link is visible simply because more fathers are unresponsive, not because a father’s lack of response has a bigger impact than a mother’s. Also, the researchers wondered whether mothers in this study were better than fathers at behaving in front of the researchers in a way that fits the ideal of parental behavior for their gender.

Gallegos MI, Murphy SE, Benner AD, Jacobvitz DB & Hazen NL (2016), Marital, parental, and whole-family predictors of toddlers’ emotion regulation: the role of parental emotional withdrawal, Journal of Family Psychology