A study by the University of Georgia finds that parents who experience childhood mistreatment can fail to teach their children emotional skills
When researchers look at childhood abuse and trauma, they often find that the unprocessed responses to these experiences can reach intricately into a whole generation of people.
Two studies that look at the power of trauma
In Israel, Holocaust survivors gave scientists one of their first looks at lifelong PTSD in combination with other mental health problems. It was found that they experience lifelong debilitating illness, as they are unable to stop experiencing the memories as if they are connected to the present moment. Memory becomes a “lifelong burden”, with the fragmentation of the ego happening to cope with this omnipresent knowledge.
And in the US, a different team looked at the opposite of lifelong trauma. Children who are born to mothers with trauma were found to have a higher likelihood of experiencing it themselves – from the time they are 1 month old.
Dr Hendrix, lead researcher on the possibilities of pregnancy transferring trauma, said: “The neural signature we observed in the 1-month-old infants of emotionally neglected mothers may be a mechanism that leads to increased risk for anxiety, or it could be a compensatory mechanism that promotes resilience in case the infant has less supportive caregivers.
“Our findings highlight the importance of emotional support early in life, even for subsequent generations.”
Now, researchers look at the impact of abused parents on children
According to this team at the University of Georgia, teaching a child how to manage their emotions is crucial to parenting. It will create a map for them to handle the rest of their lives, when they come up against stresses or need to navigate new experiences – both good and bad. The way that a child learns how to wield emotion can be a decisive factor for the future of their interpersonal relationships, whether platonic or romantic.
So, what happens when parents lack their own emotional regulation skills?
They can then find it extremely difficult to pass on emotional skills, because these parents who have experience of abuse find it difficult to identify their emotions and implement strategies to regulate them. Children mimic and learn from their parents, which can lead to a transmission of emotional regulation issues.
This study found that parents with a history of childhood abuse or neglect often struggled to accept negative emotions, controlling impulsive responses, and using healthy emotional regulation strategies.
‘It’s harder to train someone to manage their emotions later in life’
Kimberly Osborne, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, commented: “Parents implicitly and explicitly teach their children how to regulate their emotions.
“I’ve worked with young toddlers, and when you’re teaching them about their emotions, you can see how malleable that skill is. It’s a lot harder to train someone to manage their emotions later in life. If we can understand the transmission pathways and the risks of regulation difficulties later in life, then we can use this research for prevention and to equip people with better skills so that the pattern doesn’t continue.”
Boys struggled more with emotional regulation than girls
The female participants showed emotional regulation difficulties under stress regardless of their parents’ history of childhood trauma or emotion regulation skills. But at the same time, boys were specifically more vulnerable to emotional regulation difficulties when their parents also struggled with emotion regulation.
The study observed 101 children and their primary caregivers. The parents took a questionnaire to measure childhood neglect, trauma and abuse, along with a survey that established their own ability to control their emotions. Researchers measured children’s heart rate variability, an established measure of emotional regulation, at rest and during a stressful activity using an electrocardiogram while their parent watched.
The study also showed that parents who found themselves unable to set aside negative emotions to pursue their goals (getting work done while being in a bad mood) were more likely to have children who struggle to regulate their emotions during stressful experiences.
How can you teach your child emotional skills?
The team recommend that the child’s emotions are confirmed, with a chance for the child to reflect on why they feel this way.
Lead researcher Osborne commented: “From a very young age, the best thing to do is to just reflect back to the child what they are experiencing. If you see a child crying, instead of saying, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. What happened?’ you can say, ‘You’re crying. I can see that you’re sad. What made you sad?’ That A, defines the emotion for them so it’s helping them identify that emotion, and B, it encourages them to reflect on what happened and to tell you in their own words what caused the emotion.
“It’s similar to how if you had a parent with alcoholism, you may have learned to stay away from alcohol and may want to teach your kids to do the same. It’s important to tell them, ‘We have a tendency not to regulate our emotions well, so we are going to keep tabs on it together to make sure that this doesn’t develop into something more harmful for you later.'”
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