Children's worries ignored by parents

Parents often downplay the worries of their children, new research has found. Published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, the study suggested mums and dads also tend to overestimate their kids' optimism and believe them to be smarter than they really are.

Investigators from the University of California, Davis's Center for Mind and Brain noted previous studies have indicated parents sometimes think their little ones are better at maths, language and cognitive tests than their school results suggest.

Kristin Lagattuta, Associate Professor of Psychology at the learning institute - which has a history stretching back more than 100 years - stated: "We thought this positivity bias also might apply to how parents perceive their children's emotional wellbeing."

The authors said caution therefore needs to be taken when using the second-hand evaluations parents and other adults make regarding the emotions felt by children. 

Researchers should ideally assess such matters by making use of multiple sources, they went on to add.

Society Fellow Dr Gillian Butler comments:

"This sounds to me like a positivity bias, just as Prof Lagattuta suggests. If so, what could be the reasons for it? There are many possibilities.

"Maybe parents are reluctant to face up to 'bad stuff' where their children are concerned, and 'look on the  bright side'. Maybe it's hard to face up to 'bad stuff' Maybe this is what they think children should learn to do - just as they might learn "to whistle a happy tune whenever they feel afraid". Maybe they don't know how to deal with their own worries, let alone those of a child. Do we know whether they also downplay other people's worries?

"Maybe, having a hunch that worries spread (which they do), they don't want to talk about them too much. Maybe they are protecting themselves from catching the worries, or from adding to their worries. Maybe they just think its best to help the child cheer up, or want to take their minds off the worries. Maybe they think that if they talk about the worries then the worry will 'come true'.

"And if it is part of a general positivity bias, in this case affecting parents' attitudes to an aspect of the emotional well-being of their children, then maybe having a positivity bias has advantages - even biological ones - that the children may  benefit from. So much we don't know, in the context of something small that we know a bit more about..."