My parents don’t understand me. Does it matter?

19 Dec My parents don’t understand me. Does it matter?

Does it really matter how well a mom or dad understand their child?  Aren’t there basic childrearing principles and techniques that work for all kids?

Over the last decade, researchers have questioned the one-size-fits-all approach to parenting. The idea is that children’s temperaments and needs are so varied that parents have to understand their own child’s personality and match their parenting to suit.  But is that really the case?  And if it is important to understand your child, just what aspect of your child is key to get right?

A team of researchers recently tried to answer these questions by assessing how accurate mothers’ understanding of their children was. (Sigh. Yes, mothers only, not fathers.) The researchers compared ratings by the moms and by their 10-12 year old children about what they thought would distress or comfort the children. For example, mothers and children were asked how much stress the child would experience due to breaking a bike, being teased, making a mistake in public, or having a fight with a friend.  They were also asked how much various parent responses would help, such as offering help, encouraging self-reliance, providing distraction, or trying to cheer up the child with an ice cream.

Bottom line results: ‘Yes, a mother’s understanding matters—but only about some things.’ The researchers found that mothers who were more accurate in predicting what would be upsetting to their children had children who had better coping skills.

What about a mom’s accuracy in knowing what helps calm her child? The story here is a little more complex.  Mothers’ accuracy about calming their child was linked to good coping skills only for children who were easily distressed.  But for these children, mothers’ understanding about calming responses showed other positive child benefits including more empathy, concern for others, and (by teacher ratings) positive behaviors toward classmates.

However, the study also found that mothers’ accuracy about their children’s interests, preferred activities, and school subjects did not have any beneficial link to the aspects of children’s well-being measured.

This study suggests that mothers who understand what upsets their children can help the child learn to prepare for, avoid, or manage those stressors. Understanding what comforts an easily distressed child can help the parent offer the right response–and in this way help the child achieve more emotional security and a capacity to be more attuned to others’ feelings and needs.

From a Family Foundations perspective, we would encourage researchers to look at how mothers and fathers can support each other’s accurate understanding of their child.  For example, how can parents share insights–without getting into arguments about whose perspective is right?

For now, though, we should all study this type of parenting teamwork in our lives. Tell us what you think:

Vinik, J., Almas, A. & Grusec, J. 2011. Mothers’ Knowledge of What Distresses and What Comforts Their Children Predicts Children’s Coping, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior. Parents, 11(1): 56-71.

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