How the emotional climate between mothers and their children helps adolescents cope with stress

How the emotional climate between mothers and their children helps adolescents cope with stress
adolescents stress

The transition to middle school can be a stressful time for teens. They must adapt to the new peer group and social environment while going through the developmental changes of puberty.

A recent University of Illinois study looks at how the emotional aspects of parenting can help young people better deal with peer pressure during this transitional period.

The researchers assessed the emotional closeness between fifth graders and their mothers and measured how it predicted young people's ability to deal with social challenges when they started middle school the following year.

They combined observations of the mother's interactions with the youth with measures of the young's biological ability to respond to stress.

The study is part of a larger and ongoing project at the Kelly Two Research Laboratory, studying the mental health and well-being of adolescents and the role of parental involvement. Tu is an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) at U of I, and a co-author of the paper.
So, going beyond the mothers’ specific suggestions for coping, here we focus on the emotional climate of these conversations,” he explains. Xiaomei Li, Ph.D. candidate at HDFS and lead author of the paper.

Teens often turn to their mothers to discuss peer problems. And when mothers give advice, what matters is not only what they tell the teens, but also how those messages are conveyed.

The researchers invited mothers and teens in the last semester of fifth grade to the research lab and asked them to spend five minutes talking about a peer problem young people were having.

The young people also filled out questionnaires about how they dealt with peer pressure, once during fifth grade and again after they started sixth grade the following school year.

The researchers say that the ability to engage in active forms of coping - trying to solve a problem and managing one's reactions - is usually considered most beneficial for young people's successful adaptation to new environments.

During the five-minute conversation, trained observers assessed the mother's influence (such as smiles, physical and verbal emotion, frustration, or tension) and bilateral communication or cohesion (such as alternating and communicating smoothly).

The researchers also measured the youth's biological response in the form of respiratory arrhythmia (RSA) and measured baseline RSA at rest while watching a slideshow of nature images.

RSA measures changes in heart rate, and a higher baseline RSA indicates a greater ability to respond to stressful situations by regulating heart rate.

The stress response is a multilevel mechanism that includes both behavioral and biological responses. We wanted to note how some common biomarkers of the stress response system can explain how young people participate in behavioral strategies to deal with stress, as well as how their mothers may support them,” Lee says.

Young men who experienced more positive influence and greater cohesion during their conversations with mothers reported more active keeping up and seeking advice from parents in middle school.

In comparison, young adults whose mothers expressed less positive influence (or more criticism and disinterest) and who were less coherent with their children during the conversation were less able to deal effectively with social pressures when starting middle school. This was particularly notable for children with low baseline RSA.

“For some young adults who may be biologically predisposed to be susceptible to stress, such as a lower baseline presentation of RSA, a positive, warm maternal influence and a cohesive and collaborative conversational environment appear to be particularly important for the development and use of active confrontation,” Lee says.

One of the takeaways from these findings, Tu explains, is for parents to think about how to create a positive and supportive space to talk to their children about their problems.

“As a parent, you can give great advice. But what our study shows is that the way parents talk to their children is important to how teens deal with stress. Less warm and supportive conversations may undermine parents' efforts to help. In the future, young people are less likely to seek parental advice.. ".

There may also be cultural differences in the emotional closeness of parents and how important young people are, Tu and Lee say.

Study participants included a diverse sample of 57% White, 10% Black, 13% Hispanic/Latino, 6% Asian, and 14% other/mixed race. While the ethnic groups were too small to analyze separately, the researchers recognize the need to better understand cultural factors in future studies.

Source: Materials provided by University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Reference:

Xiaomei Li, Kelly M. Tu, Nancy L. McElwain. Interactive Contribution of Observed Mother-Youth Emotional Climate and Youth Physiology: A Biopsychosocial Approach to Understanding Youth Coping With Peer Stress. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 2022; 027243162210960 DOI: 10.1177/02724316221096079


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