Parents who intentionally ignore children’s negative emotions may actually increase their children’s expressions of anger, aggression, and disproportionate emotional behaviors
Ignoring children’s emotional outbursts is a strategy commonly employed by parents with a wide range of psychological know-how, drawing on their intuition, family tradition, modeling, or simple desperation. Despite its widespread use, parental ignoring has previously received little attention or assessment by child development professionals.
“For whatever reason, the folks who are developing questionnaires to assess these kinds of behaviors didn’t focus on ignoring responses,” noted Scott P. Mirabile, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. The one questionnaire that had assessed ignoring failed to differentiate it clearly from other types of parental responses. “It occurred to me, that it would not be difficult to add ignoring questions to a very widely used questionnaire.”
Coping with Children’s Negative Emotions Scale (CCNES) was a questionnaire well-suited to Dr. Mirabile’s purpose. Designed in 1990 to “measure the degree to which parents perceive themselves as reactive to young children’s negative affect in distressful situations,” CCNES contained 12 items, each with six options reflecting specific parental coping responses. Each option could be rated on a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 = very unlikely and 7 = very likely.
“I added another response option to each item,” Dr. Mirabile explains. “The original question might say something like: ‘If my child is riding a bicycle and falls down and starts to cry, I would ___’ and give a parent six different options. I added another line like: ‘I would ignore my child’s crying’ or ‘I wouldn’t respond to my child’s crying.’” Mirabile’s added options were designed to reflect whether parents ignored the child in general or ignored the child’s emotion specifically.
Let’s clarify how these responses differ: If a child is begging for candy in the checkout aisle and starts to cry, a complete ignorer of everything doesn’t look at the child and keeps putting objects on the belt. A parent who just ignores the emotion might say: “We have candy at home,” or “Let’s wait ‘til we get out of here and then talk about it.” That parent is engaging the child, but not discussing or naming the emotion. Both strategies stand in contrast to a parent who says: “I understand you’re upset now, but this candy isn’t good for you. Let’s go home and have some fruit.” This response labels the child’s feeling and offers a solution as well.
Armed with the modified CCNES, Dr. Mirabile recruited parents of 3- to 6-year-old children from three Maryland preschools. The 81 parents participating had an average age of 34.8 years and 90% were female; approximately 89% were Anglo-American, 12% African-American, 1% Hispanic, and 1% Asian-American, with some parents reporting multiple ethnicities.
In addition to providing demographic data and completing the modified CCNES, participants filled out the Emotion Regulation Checklist (ERC), the Emotion Regulation Skills Questionnaire (ERSQ), the Social Competence and Behavior Evaluation – Short Form (SCBE), and the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL). These assessments provided scores indicating emotion regulation, children’s use of emotion-regulation strategies, a measure of child lability, social competence, and a child’s tendency to internalize (anxiety-withdrawal) or externalize (anger-aggression) their problems.
The study’s results, published recently in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology, highlight several aspects of parental ignoring behavior: Ignoring responses showed significant positive relationship with punitive and minimizing parental responses, and significant negative relationship with expressive and encouraging parental responses – a strategy called “expressive encouragement,” in which parents encourage children’s expression of negative emotions. Together, the results suggest that ignoring should properly be considered an unsupportive emotion socialization strategy.
In addition, the finding that parents’ ignoring correlates positively with children’s emotional lability, anger, and aggression suggests that parental ignoring is not only a response to children’s poor emotional behavior, but also may be a cause of it. For example, children may perceive ignoring as a non-response, think a parent is failing to notice their emotion, and so turn up the intensity of their behavior.
“There could certainly be a process whereby a child starts off turning the volume up, and when that doesn’t get them anything after weeks or months or years, they could start to suppress instead. And so both of those possibilities – amping up the negative lability AND suppressing the negative lability – could be true … That might seem like a good thing, but maybe their suppressing and suppressing isn’t as good as understanding and dealing constructively with their emotion,” Mirabile suggests.
Despite these results, Mirabile is hesitant to denounce “ignoring” as a bad parenting strategy. “It would be premature to say, ‘Well ignoring is always a bad strategy, and therefore counselors need to help parents understand that’s an ignoring response and you shouldn’t ignore emotions.’ Maybe that’s a good idea, but we don’t really know enough yet about under what situations, what emotions, for what age range, ignoring is going to be a non-helpful strategy.”
The present study establishes the “ignoring” subscale Mirabile added to CCNES as an internally consistent, reliable, and valid tool. It also draws the attention of psychologists to “ignoring children’s emotions” as an unsupportive emotion socialization strategy in young children. Mirabile hopes to see increased interest in this area, especially observational research and longitudinal studies in early and middle childhood to better understand the long-term effects of parental ignoring on children’s emotional competence.