SALT LAKE CITY — Moms who can control their own emotions, solve problems and regulate their reactions are less likely to have squabbling kids or tantrum throwers, according to a new study focused on emotional capacity. And, new findings show those moms are more likely to give their kids the benefit of the doubt.
Mothers who are self-aware and in control of their emotions are less harsh and don't assign negative intent to their children's actions when no harm was intended, says Ali Crandall, the study's lead author and assistant professor of public health at Brigham Young University.
On the other hand, moms who lose control of their own emotions are more likely to be harsh and controlling, both of which contribute to the likelihood of behavioral problems in their children.
The study, which is published in the journal Family Relations, looks at how well the mothers managed their emotions and at their executive function ability. Researchers used a combination of self-reported data and simple tests of executive function that focused specifically on working memory, the ability to shift from one task to another and "inhibitory control," which Crandall describes as being very similar to self-control.
"Emotion and cognitive control capacities are vital for successful parenting, allowing parents to be perceptive, responsive, and flexible," the study says. "Parents call on these capacities as they plan and change behavior, respond appropriately to cues, regulate emotion in the face of stress and challenging child behaviors, problem-solve and make decisions."
Those capacities vary widely among mothers. But the researchers note that the future is not solely controlled by current skills and abilities. Moms can work on weaknesses and make changes that will impact their lives and that of their children. If the women "improve their emotional and cognitive control capacities," it is very likely they can reduce harsh verbal parenting and child behavioral problems, said Crandall.
"This study demonstrates the importance of our control of our own thoughts, emotions and behaviors in our role as a parent. Our findings fit into a larger body of research showing that a parent will benefit from nurturing their own internal resources of 'self-control' of their emotions and behaviors, by paying attention to when they are feeling tired, frustrated and 'reactive,'" study co-author Kirby Deater-Deckard, who has become a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst since the research was conducted, wrote in an email to the Deseret News. "Doing so can help maintain our self-control. It is not easy; it takes practice and effort. But even small improvements can help."
The goal of the research was to see "how those self-regulatory capacities predicted both a mother's attitudes about parenting and how she attributed her children's neutral or ambiguous behaviors, and her harsh verbal parenting and how that predicted her children's conduct," Crandall said.
The researchers were not surprised to learn that the better mom controlled her own emotions and behaviors, the fewer conduct problems her child exhibited.
They also found that moms who controlled their own emotions were less apt to assume the worst of a child's actions. For example, when a child plays around and pulls hair, moms are less apt to assume the child is being angry and hurtful, figuring instead that the child was playing and it happened to hurt. The interpretation was impacted by the mother's degree of self-regulation.
Her self-regulatory capacities also "predicted her attitude about parenting. Mothers with better executive function had more "sort of progressive parenting attitudes" about children compared with moms with lower executive functioning, who had more "children should be seen but not heard" attitudes, Crandall said.
Crandall and researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Virginia Tech gathered information from 152 mothers who had young children, ages 3 to 7, in the Appalachia region. The moms were all adults under age 50, most often married and two-thirds had earned at least a high school diploma.
To assess her self-control, women answered a 10-item questionnaire on frequency of angry outbursts or how often they overreact. Researchers used simple tasks to look at the executive function abilities.
During the study, the researchers tried to control for differences in how accurately people report on themselves. "People notoriously lie, even if we don't think we lie. It's a social desirability bias we have," where people try to appear at their best, Crandall said. She noted that people with lower executive function may also be less likely to see accurately their own emotion-control abilities, which may color reporting on their children's actions, too.
Crandall hopes the study removes some of the guilt that moms feel about not being perfect, while also providing encouragement to make positive changes.
"We don't have perfect control of our brains yet, but we can make improvements to these neuropathways and train new ones," she said.
Women who notice they're responding to their children in ways that don't seem beneficial can stop and take a different approach.
Deater-Deckard recommends parents "take a time out" to assess the situation. Adults can improve their executive functions by being aware of what they're doing and taking time to plan how they might respond in the future.
Parents need to do what they can to help themselves be the "best way they can," said Crandall, including eating well, exercising and getting adequate sleep. "All these things help the brain to function better which will help you respond better in the moment to challenging parenting situations," she said.
Those health-enhancing actions impact people and their daily function in positive ways "in all aspects of their lives," she adds. "As a parent, we are laying the foundation for the health of our children, our whole families. We need to think about this cognitive aspect."