Affective social competence
One challenge to the study of children’s socio-emotional development has been to synthesize the myriad competencies of importance to children’s wellbeing. However, Susanne Denham, Julie Dunsmore, and I created a transactional model that now brings the many skills and processes involved in “affective social competence” (ASC) into one coherent, testable whole. In brief, the ASC model proposes that children develop emotional skills in three broad domains: sending (“the efficacious communication of one’s own affect”), receiving (“the successful interpretation and response to others’ affective communications”), and experiencing (“the awareness, acceptance, and management of one’s own affect”; Halberstadt, Denham, & Dunsmore 2001, p. 80). Our work in the lab is, in general, influenced by this conceptualization of affective social competence.
Parents’ beliefs and behaviors about children’s emotions
Parents’ beliefs about children’s emotions are thought to be important mechanisms that inform parents’ childrearing behaviors, and subsequently impact children’s socio-emotional competence. For example, Dix (1991; 1992; 1993) hypothesized that parents’ attributions about their children influence their emotional reactions toward them, and subsequently, how they socialize their children. Dunsmore and Halberstadt (1997) proposed that parents’ emotionally expressive behavior and beliefs about emotions work together to help children create self- and world-schemas. Gottman, et al. (Gottman, Katz, & Hooven, 1996, 1997; Katz, Wilson, & Gottman, 1999) similarly proposed that parents’ beliefs and behaviors regarding emotion, that is, their “meta-emotion theories and coaching,” affect important life outcomes for children. Further, parental awareness and coaching of emotions are related to more positive and less negative peer play in preschool-aged children (Katz & Windecker-Nelson, 2004).
Our recent work has focused on testing some of the propositions regarding parental beliefs and their associations with children’s behavior. In one study, we assessed linkages between parental beliefs about the value of emotion and parental behaviors, such as parents’ sharing of their own emotional experiences and discussing emotional topics with their children (Halberstadt, Thompson, Parker, & Dunsmore, 2008). And we also examined the linkages between parental beliefs and behaviors with the number of different and distinct kinds of coping strategies children were able to generate, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In this study we found that parental beliefs about the value of emotion were related to how parents discussed the terrorist attacks and expressed their own feelings with their children. Parental beliefs about emotion as valuable and as dangerous were both directly related to children’s coping two months after the attacks. These two variables further predicted parents’ emotion-related behavior and children’s engagement in a conversation about the attacks one year later. These results as well as other studies from our lab and Julie Dunsmore’s lab at Virginia Tech suggest that parental beliefs may well be a powerful predictor of both parental behavior and children’s outcomes (e.g., Dunsmore, Her, Halberstadt, & Rivera, 2009; Stelter & Halberstadt, 2011).
Three other studies deserve mention: We have found the field lacking in ways to adequately measure all the beliefs that we consider important. Thus, we have devoted considerable effort to developing a theoretically –based measure of parents’ beliefs about children’s emotions. First, we turned to parents themselves, and listened and learned from them through focus groups. Because we are committed to creating measures that resonate for diverse populations of parents, and based on data suggesting the importance of culture when considering beliefs about emotion (e.g., Tan & Cole, 2005), we decided to learn from both mothers and fathers from three ethnicities in the United States (African-American, European- American, and Lumbee Native American). We were both honored by these parents’ contributions to our understanding of their beliefs and amazed by the rich and vivid data emerging from these meetings. This qualitative work is now published (Parker et al., 2012).
In a second study we utilized parents’ wisdom in improving our preliminary questionnaire on parental beliefs about emotions, which we then gave to 1108 mothers and fathers within the same three ethnicities. Initial factor analyses indicated 11 subscales that were consistently found across the three ethnicities; the questionnaire that emerged from those analyses is the PBACE (2008) and is used in numerous studies. Using more stringent rules for skew and kurtosis, we later re-analyzed these data (EFA, CFA) and identified 7 scales that are also invariant by ethnicity and gender (Halberstadt, Dunsmore, Bryant, Parker, Beale, & Thompson, 2013), These scales also relate in predictable ways to parents’ modeling of emotion-related behaviors and their reactions to children’s negative and positive emotion (Halberstadt et al., 2013).
In a third study, we further explored how parents’ beliefs relate to and likely direct specific types of socialization behaviors; in this study we found that parents’ beliefs about the value of emotion related in predictable ways with their labeling of, teaching about, and encouragement of children’s emotion (Lozada, Halberstadt, Craig, Dunsmore, & Dennis, under review).
In our most recent work (the CUED IN study described below), we are now exploring parents’ beliefs and their behaviors in conjunction with each other, and in relation to children’s outcomes, including very specific measures of emotion understanding and emotion experience, and more global measures of social functioning in school settings.
Children' emotion understanding: CUED IN Study
Although emotion understanding is a central skill for children’s interpersonal and academic success, and parents are important agents of children’s emotion socialization, few studies have considered mothers’ emotion-related socialization beliefs, parenting styles, or socialization behaviors as predictors of children’s emotion understanding abilities beyond early childhood. That is our goal in an extended two-year study, fundedby the National Science Foundation, with Patricia Garrett-Peters as co-PI. In this study, we first explore relationships between multiple components of emotion understanding (including accuracy regarding emotions people show on their faces, and knowledge about when and why people have certain feelings and show or control their feelings). Dynamic measurement during middle childhood is particularly important because, in real life, adults and older children tend to only partially express, or even mask, their emotions. Our second goal is to examine direct and mediated contributions to children’s emotion understanding made by mothers’ parenting styles and beliefs about emotions, and their emotion socialization behaviors, including discussion of emotion with children and reactions to children’s negative feelings. Third, we examine how the multiple components of children’s emotion understanding affect children’s social skills and relationships with teachers and peers. Fourth, all these associations are considered within the contexts of race and class. Finally, we embedded some “specialty” emotions in this study so that we could look at pride and schadenfreude in more detail. We now have our data sets ready for a multitude of analyses, both within the study itself and linking to the longitudinal data set, and welcome collaborators.
The Social Construction of Emotional Experience, Expression and Understanding
Language involves learning both the specific language itself and the rules and conventions of the culture. Parents make many choices in how they talk to children; as they do so, they teach children (inadvertently or consciously) a variety of cultural rules. Our first work in this domain relates to gender: If language highlights the importance of gender, then we would expect children to construct schemas reflecting the importance of gender (Turiel, 1983; Vygotsky, 1962). Using two separate data sets of parent-child and child-child conversations, we documented the frequency of gendered speech and, additionally, the specific types of messages that children hear from family members and that they communicate themselves to others. In the first data set, we have found clear evidence that mothers communicate different messages by gender, even with children as young as four years old; we are currently analyzing the second data set for the messages being communicated by parents to children, children to parents, and children to their friends. These investigations support the claim that parents construct gendered behavior and values in children via the linguistic messages they convey, and children also bring their own gendered ideas to the table as well (Halberstadt, Sibley, Craig, & Thompson, 2013).
Our newest work concerns whether mothers and fathers react differently toward boys and girls who are feeling sad and angry. We were particularly interested in whether gender differences may be differentially embedded in various cultures. Briefly, we found that gender differences in both parents’ emotional expressiveness and reactions to children’s negative emotions do vary substantially by culture, creating a further challenge for claims that gender differences in emotion-related behaviors are biological (Brown, Craig, & Halberstadt, under review). We are further exploring these differences in terms of different types of reactions, to children’s distress and anger, and perceived social consequences for boys and girls within three different ethnicities.
Considering the impact of culture further, we have begun exploring ways in which parents socialize the expression, experience, and understanding of emotion within various cultures and have worked to add a deeper conceptualization of the frames we use when considering culture (Halberstadt & Lozada, 2011). In our newest empirical work we are examining how parents discuss discriminatory experiences with their children, and how this relates to children’s understanding of emotion as depicted in African American and European American facial expressions, and children’s overall social competence in school.