A new study finds that in the early years of life, aggressive and disruptive children can show concern for the welfare of others. However, this concern can decrease as the children reach school age. The study appears in the September issue of Developmental Psychology, a journal published by the American Psychological Association (APA). The study also shows that environmental factors such as warm and supportive parenting may play a role in promoting children's prosocial development.
Researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health and at the University of Colorado at Boulder followed three groups of children from preschool into the elementary school years. These children initially had low, moderate or high levels of aggressive and disruptive behaviors. When the children were four and-a-half and six and-a-half years old, their responses were observed while their mothers and a female experimenter pretended to injure their foot while dropping some objects on the floor. In each case, the adult winced or grimaced, vocally expressed pain and rubbed the injured area. In addition, at six and-a-half years, mothers, teachers and the children answered questions about the children's concern.
The investigation revealed that at preschool age, aggressive and disruptive children showed just as much concern in their responses to adults' distress as did children with fewer problems. However, the concern for others of the children with the highest levels of problem behaviors underwent dynamic and worrisome changes over the following two years. These children's concerned responses actually decreased from preschool to elementary school. The most aggressive and disruptive children were also described by mothers, teachers and themselves, as being the least prosocial. Although deficits in concern for others' well-being are not readily detectable in preschool-aged children with high levels of behavior problems, the study found differences in how children responded to adults' simulations of injuries. "Despite being just as prosocial as other preschool-aged children," said the authors, aggressive and disruptive boys "displayed more active disregard for others (e.g., anger, avoidance, amusement by another's distress) which differs markedly from the simple absence of concern." This disregard may be an early indicator of the callousness that often characterizes antisocial behavior in adolescents and adults.
The authors noted that not all of the highly aggressive and disruptive children's concern for others decreased, and that children with early behavior problems actually improved from preschool to elementary school age when they had higher levels of concern. These children may have become less antisocial because they were distressed by the fact that their actions harmed others. Concern for others may make it possible for children to take responsibility for their actions, according to the researchers. "Our results also show important links between parenting style and children's prosocial development," said the authors. "The present results clearly suggest that mothers who are overly strict and harshly punitive, who do not tend to reason or establish reasonable and consistent rules, and who strongly show their anger or disappointment with their children, are likely to impede their children's prosocial development." This relationship was true for both children with and without behavior problems. Conversely, children had greater concern for others when mothers were warm, used reasoning and set appropriate guidelines and avoided the use of harsh punishments. One process that could account for this pattern is that "angry, authoritarian parenting could be interpreted by the children as a lack of care or concern on the part of their parents," said the authors. Although fathers were not looked at in this study, the authors say future studies should consider how fathers might influence children's concern for others.
Gender differences were also found to play a role in concern for others. In all three groups, girls showed more concern than boys did. This supports prior research showing that, from the second year of life through adolescence, girls express more empathy than do boys, according to the authors. Citing research that shows genetics play a significant role in empathic and prosocial development, the authors speculate that biological factors could also contribute to the changes in concern observed in the high-risk children. This, they say, is something future research should address.
Reference: "The Development of Concern for Others in Children With Behavior Problems," Paul D. Hastings, Ph.D., and Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, Ph.D., JoAnn Robinson, Ph.D., Barbara Usher, Ph.D., and Dana Bridges; Developmental Psychology, Vol. 36, No. 5.
Talking With Children About Difficult Things
Do you talk with your kids?
Could they come to you if they had a problem? Would you get upset or uncomfortable if they brought up certain
things? Do you wish you didn’t really HAVE to talk about sex? Do your kids keep secrets from you?
Kids today are exposed to a lot – both in real life and through television, movies, and music. They are concerned about drugs, sex, relationships, violence, and discrimination. Studies show that children want and need the help and guidance of their parentsin trying to figure these things out.
A significant number of kids will experience major family changes, such as the divorce and remarriage of their parents. Many will be victims of bullying, harassment, discrimination, or violence. Some may be “growing up too soon”. A study done in 1999 showed that half of all 9th graders in Chicago and 24% of 9th graders elsewhere in Illinois have already had sex. About 75% of 9th graders have tried alcohol at least once, 30% have already tried marijuana, and 24% said that they felt “sad and hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more. ” Studies show that youth who have close
relationships with parents and can talk about difficult issues are more likely to cope effectively with life’s stressors, more likely to delay sex, and less likely to use drugs.
BUT, a recently conducted national study of 8- 15 year old kids and their parents showed that:
Less than half of parents of 8-15 year olds say they have talked with their kids about sex. About half of these kids, however, don’t recall the conversation, or if they do, recall talking about it only “a couple of times”. Sex is also the topic most parents delay until kids bring it up. Kids say they don’t bring it up because their parents will get worried or that their parents “just won’t understand”.
Two-thirds of 8-11 year olds and 82% of 12- 15 year olds keep secrets from parents at east some of the time because they think their parents “won’t understand”. Kids want parents to be their main source of information, help, and advice about tough issues – but if they don’t get it from parents they will get it somewhere else.
How to Talk With Kids
By “talking with kids” we don’t mean “lecturing” or having the “big talk”. We mean being willing to listen to the concerns and questions that children have, observing and monitoring what kids are involved in, and having informal conversations on a DAILY basis. Parents can also “talk” by sharing stories, offering explanations, and commenting on things that children might see or experience. Watching television or movies, or reading books together can become opportunities to connect with kids. Time spent while driving, doing chores, or preparing and having meals are chances to be engaged in children’s lives.
Talking with your kids this way:
Gives them a chance to express their thoughts and feelings,
Gives you a chance to find out what’s important to them,
Helps them understand your values and beliefs,
Helps them understand themselves and the world,
Provides some guidance for developing their own set of values,
Lets them know that you care about them.
To do this, you first need to build a relationship of trust that makes you an “approachable” parent. Then you need to be prepared to handle specific issues that might be difficult to talk about.
How to Be an “Approachable” Parent
Children wish their parents could be their main source of support. But children may hesitate to bring up questions or concerns because of how parents have reacted to them in the past. It is important to build the kind of relationship where kids will:
Come to you in times of need and share their questions and concerns, and
Be more likely to listen to you and think that what you say is helpful or comforting.
In other words, you need to become an “approachable” parent. In their book “How to Talk
So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk,” Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish argue that when kids “feel right” they will “behave right”. The way to help them “feel right” is to accept and acknowledge the feelings that they have –
especially when they are upset or angry. Most parents would claim that they DO accept their children’s feelings – BUT we often talk to children in ways that make strong feelings seem unacceptable or unimportant:
“There’s no reason to be so upset”
“You don’t really feel that way”
“You’re acting like a baby”
“I don’t ever want to hear you say that again!”
“That was a really stupid thing to do!”
This way of talking can leave them confused and angry. It can teach them to bury their feelings and not trust them. Kids may also learn not to trust parents, or to keep certain feelings or concerns to themselves so parents won’t get upset.
In “Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles”, Mary
Sheedy Kurcinka explains that parents can help children learn how to manage their own feelings by being emotionally connected. When this happens, children are more likely to be able to cope with difficult situations.
So how can you be this kind of parent?
1. See strong emotions, outbursts, tantrums, and power struggles as opportunities to connect with kids, rather than to exert control or convince kids that “they shouldn’t feel that way”.
2. Learn how to respond to strong feelings by listening with full attention, acknowledging feelings, giving a name or label to feelings, and granting wishes in a fantasy (“I wish I could make all the scary feelings go away”). This helps children clarify their feelings and makes them feel like you are on their side.
3. Help kids learn how to manage their emotions and explore different ways of solving a problem.
4. Learn how to recognize when you are “losing it” and learn how to manage
eelings of your own that can get in the way of listening to and connecting with children.
5. Learn ways to get kids to cooperate with you without nagging, insulting, or disregarding their feelings and opinions. The books on the next page can show you how to do this.
Talking About Tough Issues
Parents need to (1) be ready and willing to talk with children when the chance comes up, and (2) be willing to bring up difficult topics and ask and answer questions BEFORE a child has questions or concerns. Most parents make the
mistake of waiting too long to talk about certain topics because they feel that their children “aren’t ready” or “don’t seem to be interested or concerned.” Start early and focus on “little talks” along the way, rather than on “the big talk”. Take advantage of “teachable moments” and informal times.
10 tips for talking with kids:
1. Start early
2. Make it easy to talk with you
3. Start conversations with
4. Trust yourself
5. Talk about your values
6. Be honest
7. Be patient
8. Listen carefully and watch closely
9. Use everyday opportunities to talk
10. Talk about it again and again
(from Talking with Kids About Tough Issues
5 additional “ground rules”:
1. Know what you are talking about (get the
facts so you can be a credible source of
2. Be honest, so children learn to trust what
you tell them
3. Be brief
4. Be clear
5. Respect your child’s view
(from How to Talk to Your Kids About Really Important Things)
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