Psychologist Fivush studies
how kids cope with emotions

Five-year-old Aaron is facing a hard moment in his young life. Someone at school bit him-but his parents have made their expectations clear. He's not allowed to bite back. What can he do? Cry? Feel angry? In his home, those feelings aren't talked about. "You got over it, right?" asked his dad. The incident is never discussed again.

In today's society, boys are still discouraged from expressing emotions openly. They often grow up unsure how to deal with certain sentiments. Yet experts agree that children who express their feelings will grow up better adjusted psychologically.

Parents can help their children-including boys-in this process. But it means changing long-standing communication patterns in the family, said Robyn Fivush, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology.

Over the past 10 years, she has documented hundreds of conversations between parents and their preschool children. While her primary interest is language and memory development, she also has become interested in the emotional aspects of conversations between preschoolers and their parents.

"In every instance," she said, "mothers talked about emotions only with their little girls and never with their sons. We went back and reviewed the transcripts, and found it in every case."

Subsequent studies have helped her further understand this phenomenon. Parents, she said, simply need to become more aware of the comfort they give their daughters-and apply it to their sons as well.

Little girls just naturally seem to make the communication process easier, said Fivush. At birth, girl babies are physiologically more advanced-and more able to communicate nonverbally. "Girl babies tend not to be as fussy and irritable," she said. "They are much more able in the early months to maintain eye contact and a steady alert state. The stereotype almost matches what the baby comes ready to do." This nonverbal interaction continues through the first year of life, "partly because the girls are responding."

In all four studies Fivush conducted, she found that parents spent considerably more time talking about emotions-but especially about sadness-with their little daughters.

She investigated causes for the sadness. Girls usually felt sad when they weren't able to play with a friend or-an unexpected finding in her research-when they learned that someone else was sick.

In response, she said, both parents initiated conversations about sadness. Mothers, however, spent more time "elaborating and ruminating on the sad feelings," said Fivush. "They also offered a sense of resolution to the event. There is a hug afterwards." Such discussions become lessons that sadness involves going to an adult to talk about the problem and to receive comfort.

"These little girls were learning that sadness is an important part of their experience, that it can be caused by what happens to other people," added Fivush. "They already had a sense of community, maybe even a sense of responsibility."

During the few occasions when boys expressed sadness, it usually was caused by something like losing a favorite toy. "Oh, occasionally a boy might feel sad about not playing with a friend," she said.

However, parents tended not to offer boys any resolution to the sad episode, she said. A conversation might simply be, "You were sad? Okay, it's all over with?" The conversation just ends.

Fivush speculated that while discussions about sadness help little girls deal with those feelings, overdoing it could perhaps predispose them to depression later in life. Statistics show that women experience depression at much greater rates than men-four to 10 times more.

Because boys don't receive as much attention regarding sad feelings, they have less experience coping with them, she said. They may be unsure how to respond to sad feelings, and, because they are uncomfortable, may react angrily.

With sons, she said, anger will likely be the subject that mothers and fathers discuss most often. "If you talk a lot about anger, you're saying it's okay to talk about anger," she explained.

When parents focus on specific emotions, Fivush said, they may be implicitly telling children that the emotion is important-and that they should share these feelings with other people, including adults, who can help.

Her best advice is to talk to preschool children-both boys and girls-about feelings related to events. While boys won't initiate such conversations with their parents as often as girls do, they will respond when asked. "But parents just don't ask boys about emotions as frequently," Fivush reiterated.

Children who discuss their feelings will better understand and cope with them. "These kids tend to make friends easier and negotiate better," she said. "They show more leadership qualities and better overall adjustment and self-esteem."

- Jeanie Davis

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