Emotional Involvement and Detachment: Do Kids Need Both?

In “Mother- and Father-Reported Reactions to Children’s Negative Emotions: Relations to Young Children’s Emotional Understanding and Friendship Quality”, researchers led by Dr. Nancy L McElwain of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studied over 50 pre-school children, firstly assessing their emotional maturity, and then observing play sessions with a friend. In a situation designed to produce stress and conflict it turned out that the optimum situation for the child was one very involved parent and one much less so.

I have many times observed sandpit and playground conflicts and the involvement or non involvement of the parents with horror. I have also felt horror wondering how to react myself, and tend to err on the side of letting them sort it out by themselves, while being aware that they often do not have the ability to do so yet. Depending on the culture of the place where I am, I have observed parents explicitly teaching their children that they are inferior to the others — “you naughty girl! Let him take the spade!” — or completely taking over the situation and turning it into a mini therapy session.

In Mother- and Father-Reported Reactions to Children’s Negative Emotions: Relations to Young Children’s Emotional Understanding and Friendship Quality, researchers led by Dr. Nancy L McElwain of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studied over 50 pre-school children, firstly assessing their emotional maturity, and then observing play sessions with a friend. In a situation designed to produce stress and conflict it turned out that, unsurprisingly, the supportive reactions of parents had an effect on the children’s ability to deal with having to share. The results, quoting the abstract, “partially support the notion that children benefit when parents differ in their reactions to children’s emotions”.

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When one parent reported low support, greater support by the other parent was related to more emotional maturity, for boys only. So boys do badly with low support from both parents. But when one parent reported high support, then better emotional functioning was associated with the less support from the other parent.

The optimum scenario as far as the researchers were concerned was described as one parent being actively involved in comforting and helping the child to resolve the problem while the other parent was nearby but at a distance, providing space for the child to process.

I would say it is vital for the child not to feel like the centre of a hothouse experiment. It is hard enough to lose your spade in the sandpit when you are two years old — for a minute it does feel like the end of the world — and if parents also treat it that way then it is overwhelming and ultimately disempowering for the child. Not to mention embarassing!

But maybe these results have more to do with a certain clarity of roles between the parents; when one of them takes on the role of supporter and comforter, the other is free not to. Maybe one parent by nature is more ’emotionally hands on’ in which case the parents are being real and not forcing their communicative styles on the other. It is hard not to see this in a gender stereotyped way, with the mother comforting and the father stepping back — in which case the parents are not being real so much as conforming to a role which fits them to a greater or lesser extent. Taking this into consideration complicates the research findings further! There seems to be no reason, however, why the roles should not be interchangeable.

The child sees that there are various ways of dealing with stress and emotions, engagement and distance, and that both of them work, which has to build emotional maturity. It is not that there is one right thing to do, that your parents know, and teach you, and you can do it right, in which case they are pleased with you and you are happy, or fail at it and at their approval. This last scenario seems bound to cause emotional distress in the child, probably stored up for the future, and I can see how this might be caused by the most well meaning of parents, trying the hardest to help their children deal with normally arising situations of conflict.

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