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Developmental, Emotion, Methods and statistics

Parents underestimate their children’s worry levels and overestimate their optimism

A revealing detail in this study was that parents also answered questions about their own emotions.

27 September 2012

By Christian Jarrett

It’s well-established that parents frequently overestimate their children’s intelligence and the amount of exercise they get. Now a team led by Kristin Lagattuta has uncovered evidence suggesting that parents have an unrealistically rosy impression of their kiddies’ emotional lives too. It’s a finding with important implications for clinicians and child researchers who often rely on parental reports of young children’s psychological wellbeing.

It’s previously been assumed that children younger than seven will struggle to answer questions about their emotions. Undeterred, Lagattuta and her colleagues simplified the language used in a popular measure of older children’s anxiety and they developed a pictorial scoring system that involved the children pointing to rectangles filled with different amounts of colour. Time was taken to ensure the child participants understood how to use the scale.

An initial study with 228 psychologically healthy children aged 4 to 11 from relatively affluent backgrounds found that the children’s answers to oral questions about their experience of worry (including general anxiety, panic, social phobia and separation anxiety) failed to correlate with their parents’ (usually the mother’s) written responses to questions about the children’s experience of worry. Specifically, the parents tended to underestimate how much anxiety their children experienced.

A second study was similar, but this time the researchers ensured the parents and children answered items that were worded in exactly the same way; the parents were reassured that it was normal for children to experience some negative emotion; and the parents were able to place their completed questionnaires in envelopes for confidentiality. Still the children’s answers about their own emotions failed to correlate with parents’ answers, with the parents again underestimating the amount of worry experienced by their children.

A revealing detail in this study was that parents also answered questions about their own emotions. Their scores for their own emotions correlated with the answers they gave for their children’s experiences. “These data suggest that even parents from a low-risk, non-clinical sample may have difficulty separating their emotional perspective from that of their child,” the researchers said.

Finally, 90 more children aged 5 to 10 answered questions about their optimism, whilst their parents also answered questions about their own and their children’s optimism. Again, parents’ and children’s verdicts on the children’s emotions failed to correlate, with the parents now overestimating their children’s experience of optimism. And once more, parents’ own optimism was related to how they interpreted their children’s optimism.

Lagattuta and her colleagues admitted that it’s theoretically possible that the children were the ones showing a distorted view of their own emotions, and it’s the parents who were painting the true picture. However, they think this is highly unlikely. For starters, it’s revealing that parents underestimated their children’s negative emotion and yet over-estimated their positive emotion, which argues against the idea that the children were simply answering more conservatively, or giving systematically extreme answers in one direction. Moreover, the new findings fit with the wider literature showing how parents tend to have an unrealistically rosy impression of their children’s wellbeing. An obvious study limitation is the focus on middle-class US participants, so there is of course a need to replicate with people from other backgrounds and cultures.

“From the standpoint of research and clinical practice, this mismatch between parent and child perceptions raises a red flag,” the researchers concluded. “Internally consistent self-report data can be acquired from young children regarding their emotional experiences. Obtaining reports from multiple informants – including the child – needs to be the standard.”

Further reading

Lagattuta KH, Sayfan L, and Bamford C (2012). Do you know how I feel? Parents underestimate worry and overestimate optimism compared to child self-report. Journal of experimental child psychology, 113 (2), 211-32 PMID: 22727673