Children's feelings focus of research

TALIA SHADWELL
Last updated 08:00 23/02/2013

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What is going on inside the mind of a child who is laughing, crying, throwing a tantrum or fighting?

Emotions expressed outwardly by kids may seem obvious to their parents, but a Massey psychology researcher wants them to dig deeper.

Whether your child runs around excitedly at Christmas, or daydreams about the presents, cries when nervous, or bites their nails, child psychology researcher Angela Callear wants to know about it.

She is investigating children's emotions to help parents become better attuned to the ways their kids express their feelings.

Through focus groups with psychologists, paediatricians and teachers, Ms Callear has devised 85 emotional indicators for parents to discern patterns in how children express their emotions.

The term "emotion regulation", the basis of her study and a lynchpin of child psychology, was poorly understood, Ms Callear said. She does not want parents to teach their kids to control or reduce their feelings, but to maintain or increase them where the situation fits.

"Emotions develop for a reason. Every strategy we use for dealing with them has a place, even getting into fights, getting really angry or swearing. It's really whether the emotion being used is appropriate," Ms Callear explains.

She uses the example of a child who might express a feeling of awkwardness at a funeral by making poor jokes. The child may need guidance, rather than retribution. Children who withdrew socially by hiding, doing artwork, or by masking their emotions were not necessarily embodying "something wrong" - but they may need attention.

The post-doctoral student is anxious to impress that the research is not meant to be prescriptive - and the indicators she has devised for parents to assess which emotions their children express, and how, were not all "bad".

"I ultimately would like to use these findings to help give parents the resources and knowledge to be able to raise children with strong emotional skills," Ms Callear said. "I would also like to be able to use the patterns of emotion regulation I uncover to help identify children who are struggling to deal effectively with their feelings.

"It's not so much about teaching a child to modify their emotions but [addressing] how a parent typically might deal with that - whether their parenting style is strict, like a 1950s style of parenting, or a bit more permissive."

She will use statistical analysis to identify the eight most common ways children in the study, aged 6 to 12, expressed their emotions, and offer strategies for dealing with them. And, as a mother of one herself, there were hints a parenting book could be in the works as a result of the study.

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Angela Macfarlane is looking for at least another 80 participants. She urges parents with children in the 6-12 year old age group to get in touch on a.macfarlane@massey.ac.nz or 06 3569099 x 81744. Participation is confidential and results will be anonymous.

- Manawatu Standard

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