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Effects of Parental Empathic Attunement on Children:

Parents have a significant impact on a child’s emotional development and socialization. Eisenberg, Cumberland, and Spinrad (1998) postulated that parental reactions to children’s experience and emotional expression are “examples of ways in which parents can directly socialize children’s emotion-related reactions” (Eisenberg, Cumberland, & Spinrad, 1998, p. 241).

Eisenberg et al. (1998) identified parents’ emotion-related socializing behaviors (ERSBs) to socialize their children’s emotions as parental reactions to children’s emotions, parents’ discussion of emotion, and parents’ expression of emotion (Eisenberg et al., 1998). Valiente, Lemery-Chalfant, and Reiser (2007) added “when ERSBs foster optimal levels of emotional arousal and learning, they are believed to directly influence children’s effortful control (or more broadly regulation of emotion), and consequently, problem behaviors” (Valiente, Lemery-Chalfant, & Reiser, 2007, p. 250).

Valiente et al. (2007) also posited that “parents’ temperament and the family environment are linked to parenting practices that might promote (or inhibit) children’s effortful control, a component of emotion-related regulation, which in turn is hypothesized to predict children’s problem behaviors” (Valiente et al., 2007, p. 250).

This may suggest that “an essential component of children’s successful development is learning how to regulate emotional responses and related behaviors in socially appropriate and adaptive ways” (Morris, Silk, Steinberg, Myers, & Robinson, 2007, p. 364). Morris et al. (2007) added “parents’ own emotional profiles and interactions implicitly teach children which emotions are acceptable and expected in the family environment, and how to manage the experience of those emotions” (Morris et al., 2007, p. 365).

This annotated bibliography will survey five peer-reviewed articles that look at the effect of parental emotional attunement on children's development and socialization. The review will assess the positive and negative outcomes of parental attunement or non-attunement. And it will report on an intervention for parents to build emotion-focused skills with their children.

Havighurst, S. S., Wilson, K. R., Harley, A. E., & Prior, M. R. (2009). Tuning in to kids: an emotion-focused parenting program—initial findings from a community trial. Journal of Community Psychology, 37(8), 1008-1023. doi:10.1002/jcop.20345

Using the body of research on children’s emotional competence and the impact of emotion skills on their socialization, the authors explore how this knowledge can be applied to parenting interventions. The authors define emotional competence, better known as emotional intelligence, as the ways emotion is perceived or expressed, having knowledge about emotion, the ability to regulate emotion, and the ability to appropriately use emotions in intrapersonal and interpersonal situations. Research shows that by preschool age most children are able to communicate about their feelings and are able to express them. They are able to understand cultural rules about expressing emotion, understand that they can experience more than one emotion at the same time. Children can also understand another person’s emotion and be empathic. The authors cite that improvements in social behavior, attention and physical health are associated with development in emotional competence. The research also shows that failure to develop emotional competence can lead to high levels of negative emotionality and difficulty in regulating emotion, which occur prior to the start of behavior problems and are indicators for children at risk for later problems. The authors point out that learning to understand and regulate emotions becomes developmental milestone during the preschool years.

Research showed that parents play a key role in the development of children’s emotional competence through modeling emotional expression, reactions to their children’s emotions, and how they assist, or emotion coached, children in learning about their emotional responses. The authors noted that a parent’s own emotional expression and regulation not only models how to manage and express emotion but also provides the emotional climate of the home. Therefore the parent’s emotional wellbeing plays a central role in the emotion socialization of children.

The authors propose that even with the growing evidence that associates children’s emotional competence and parental emotion socialization, practical applications for parental interventions are lacking. They noted that there are few, if any, evidence-based programs that target the responsiveness of parents to children’s emotions or aim to teach emotional coaching as a way to enhance children’s development. The current study, The Tuning in to Kids Program, addresses that by reporting on the initial evaluation of a community-based parenting program that teaches parents skills that impact children’s emotional competence and behavior.

The research sample group was made up of 218 parents of children (115 boys, 103 girls) from ages 4.0-5.11. Parents for the study were recruited from preschools in culturally and linguistically diverse lower- to middle-class socioeconomic regions in Melbourne, Australia. Preschool directors were asked to distribute study information to all parents but encouraged those having emotional or behavioral difficulties to participate.

Preschools were randomized into intervention (30 preschools) and a waitlist control (31 preschools) groups. Parents with children at the intervention preschools were assigned to the immediate start program, and parents with children at the waitlist preschools were offered a 10-month delayed start program. Participants were the primary caregiver (209 mothers, 9 fathers; mean age in years=36.52, SD=4.98). In the initial data collection 193 (88.5%) of these were intact families; 24 (11%) were single mothers, and one mother re-partnered.

The Tuning in to Kids Parenting Program was scheduled during school hours at a local community center and delivered in a group format for 2-hours a week for 6-weeks with two facilitators (one of whom was Havighurst, Harley, or Wilson who are 3 of the 4 authors of the article). A structured manual, created by Havighurst and Harley was used. The program taught parents to emotion coach their children through a series of exercises, role-plays, instructional materials, and psycho-education. Parents were also taught skills in understanding and regulating their own emotion.

Questionnaire data were collected pre-intervention (Time 1) and post-intervention (Time 2) with parents from both groups and completed measures at the same time. Time 1 questionnaires collected family demographic information, and both Time 1 and 2 questionnaires included validated scales to examine parent emotion socialization practices, parent emotional competence, parent wellbeing, and child behavior.

The results found that parents who participated in the Tuning in to Kids program reported greater competence than the control group in responding to their children’s emotions immediately after intervention with increased ability to respond in supportive and assistive ways when their children experienced emotion.

The authors noted that program facilitators reported that for many parents it was the first time they were able to empathize and connect with their children around emotions. In group sessions parents reported that they begun to notice their child’s behaviors were the outcome of emotions that were not able to be expressed, understood, and resolved. They discovered that by attending to their child’s emotions at lower level intensity parents were better able to acknowledge, teach and respond rather than to wait until the emotion intensified and overwhelmed their child’s ability to think. Findings supporting this change reported reduction of difficulties in children’s behavior. The authors added that findings showed that the majority of those with clinical levels of behavior problems before the program were no longer above clinical cutoff post-intervention suggesting that it may be possible to improve children’s behavior functioning by focusing on teaching parents effective emotion socialization practices.

The authors cited several limitations to their research study. The article reports on the parent’s reports of change, which has a potential to be affected by expectancy bias. The authors also note that parents may report change when emotional intensity levels are low but high intensity emotion may bring about internal patterns of parenting that may be rooted family of origin experiences. Observing parents using their skills with children in the home setting in real-time may be the most accurate way to measure change but that was beyond the resources of the study. The authors suggested that determining whether parental changes persist over time is also required.

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