Mental, emotional health concerns just as real for children
It's the children with stronger relationships and more secure attachments to their mothers who are better able to understand and deal with emotions, Thompson said. The opposite is also true, with children of financially strapped, clinically depressed mothers showing less emotional understanding than their peers.
"A secure attachment provides young children with a psychologically secure base for exploring and understanding emotions, especially negative emotions that may be upsetting or troubling," he said. "Those are the ones they need the most help in understanding."
Children who have strong relationships with their mothers and who talk often about emotions are also more positively self-aware and even more moral, Thompson explained.
In another study, 2½-year-old children were asked to complete a task that created some conflict — whether cleaning up toys after only a few minutes of playing or completing a far-too-difficult puzzle without mom's help.
Researchers looked at how the mother talked to her child during the potentially stressful situation and then brought the mother and child back six months later to look at conscience development, as measured by the child's ability to resist temptation.
This time, the children were given some poker chips to play with and told to ignore a shelf of exciting toys. To make it more difficult, halfway through the experiment, a research assistant would come in, play with several of the fun toys and then leave.
The researchers had coded the mother's earlier comments for how often she talked about rules, the consequences of actions and people's emotions, as well as how often she used moral evaluative statements, like 'Good boy!' They also listened for evidence of compromising or bargaining, justification and reasoning and the use of threats, teasing or insistence.
When moms talked about emotions and the human impact, as well as justification and reasoning, the children were able to resist the forbidden toys longer. Not once did a mother's discussion of rules and consequences predict an increase in a child's level of conscience, Thompson said.
Experts agree that the more time parents spend talking to their children about emotions, the more power they'll have to regulate them, but there are still many situations where children will struggle despite the parents' best efforts.
"When you have these difficult children who have a hard time emotionally and it shows up in their behaviors at school and home, you need all kinds of help," said Lori Cerar, executive director of Allies with Families, the Utah Chapter of the Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health. She encouraged parents to seek out local and national resources, to turn to family, friends and faith for assistance and to talk with other parents whose children may be struggling with similar issues. Just because parents have questions, doesn't mean they're doing something wrong, she said.
"Parents need to be armed with all the information and help that's out there for them," she said. "(They need) to not isolate themselves, and not allow the 'You're a bad parent' rhetoric to get to them."
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