A positive and supportive parent-kid environment where children can discuss their problems helps children cope with adolescent stressors in a big way.
An adolescent goes through a diversity of experiences due to biological, cognitive, and social changes. Adjustment during adolescence is reflected in identity formation, which often involves exploration followed by commitments to identities. In this entire process, emotional closeness with parents becomes an anchor for youth to cope with peer stressors during this transitional period.
The emotional closeness between fifth-graders and their mothers was assessed by researchers at the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences in order to determine how well the kids would be able to handle social challenges when they started middle school the following year. They integrated assessments of the young people’s physiologic stress response ability with observations of mother-child relationships.
The study is a component of a bigger, continuing investigation of teenage mental health and wellbeing and the significance of parental participation in Kelly Tu’s research lab. Tu is a co-author of the paper and an associate professor in the U of I Department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS).
The emotional climate of the parent-youth relationship
“Adolescents often turn to their mothers to discuss peer problems. As mothers give advice, it’s not just what they tell adolescents that matters, but also how they are conveying those messages. Therefore, moving beyond mothers’ specific suggestions for coping, here we focus on the emotional climate of these conversations,” explains Xiaomei Li, doctoral candidate in HDFS and the paper’s lead author.
Moms and teenagers in their final semester of fifth grade were invited to the research lab by the researchers, who asked them to speak for five minutes about a peer issue the young people were dealing with. The young people also responded to surveys about their usual methods of handling peer pressure, first during their time in fifth grade and again when they began sixth grade the following academic year. The ability to actively cope, such as trying to find a solution and controlling one’s emotions, is generally seen to be more advantageous for young people’s effective adjustment to new situations, according to the researchers.
Stress response includes behavioural strategies and biological reactions
Trained observers scored dyadic cohesion (such as sharing and taking turns) and maternal effect (such as smiles, physical and verbal affection, impatience, or tension) during the five-minute exchange. Additionally, as the youths watched a slide show of pictures of nature, the researchers monitored the baseline respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) to assess the biological responses of the youths. Heart rate variability is measured by RSA, and a higher baseline RSA suggests a higher ability to control heart rate in response to stress.
“Stress response is a multi-level mechanism which includes behavioural strategies and biological reactions. We wanted to observe how some common biological markers of the stress response system might inform how youth engage in behavioural strategies to cope with stress, in addition to how their mothers may support them,” Li says.
Greater cohesiveness with mothers reports more active coping in middle school
In middle school, youth who reported feeling more coherent and having more good effect during their talks with mothers also indicated active coping and sought assistance from parents. By contrast, young people whose mothers were less coherent with their kids during the conversation and showed less positive affect (i.e., more criticism and disinterest) during the chat were less capable of effectively managing social stress when they started middle school. Children with lower baseline RSA showed this the most.
“For some youth who may be biologically dispositioned to be vulnerable to stress, such as displaying lower baseline RSA, the mother’s positive, warm affect and a cohesive, collaborative conversation atmosphere appear to be especially important for the development and use of active coping,” Li says.
Parents should create a positive and supportive space to talk with children about their problems
According to Tu, one lesson to be learned from these results is that parents should consider how to provide a safe and encouraging environment in which their kids can talk to them about their issues.
“As a parent, you could be giving great advice. But what our study shows is that how parents talk with their children matters in how adolescents cope with stress. Conversations that are less warm and supportive could undermine parents’ efforts to help. And youth are less likely to seek parents’ advice in the future,” she adds.
According to Tu and Li, there can also be cultural variations in the importance of emotional connection between parents and their children. A varied sample of 57% White, 10% Black, 13% Hispanic/Latino, 6% Asian, and 14% other/mixed race persons were included in the study. Even while there were too few ethnic groups to study individually, the researchers acknowledge that future research must better grasp cultural influences.
Materials provided by the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Original written by Marianne Stein. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Xiaomei Li, Kelly M. Tu, Nancy L. McElwain. Interactive Contribution of Observed Mother-Youth Emotional Climate and Youth Physiology: A Biopsychosocial Approach to Understanding Youth Coping With Peer Stress. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 2022; 027243162210960 DOI: 10.1177/02724316221096079
University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. “How mother-youth emotional climate helps adolescents cope with stress.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 June 2022. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/06/220610120205.htm>.
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