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What Parents Get Wrong About Kids’ Emotions

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by David Diehl, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

The new Pixar movie “Inside Out” features adorable personified characters who represent the real-life emotions of a young girl. Though I haven’t yet seen the film, it’s been well-reviewed by therapists and others with expertise in the emotional lives of children. They point out that the movie does a good job of reminding families that, like adults, children experience “darker” feelings, too.

If you have kids yourself, do you tend to think of them as pretty optimistic, or do they sometimes seem to view things less positively? And do they seem relatively worry-free…or are they sometimes worried or anxious?

Are Parents Out of Touch?

While these questions might seem pretty easy to answer, fictional depictions like “Inside Out” can remind us that our own perceptions may be limited.  And in fact, recent research published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology suggests that many parents may be somewhat out of touch with their children’s emotional well-being.

In three separate studies, close to 500 children between the ages of four and eleven and their parents independently rated the children’s everyday levels of worry, anxiety, and optimism, using simple scales that were designed to be easily understood by the children. All children were free of developmental disorders and psychiatric diagnoses, and most came from low-risk, educated families.

Do We Overestimate the Good and Underestimate the Bad?

The majority of parents underestimated children’s levels of worry and anxiety and overestimated their feelings of optimism (compared to what the kids themselves said). These differences were found even when parents were reminded that some worry and anxiety is expected in normally developing children.

Parents also seemed to have difficulty distinguishing their own feelings from those of their children. For instance, parents who were themselves quite optimistic incorrectly thought their children were, too.

Communicate to Help Kids Thrive

These findings suggest that some parents may be be a bit out of touch with their children’s less positive emotions. Of course, occasional feelings of worry and negativity are perfectly normal. But it’s also important that parents take the time to listen to and communicate with children. When we’re more aware of how our children feel, we may be better able to offer support, and to help them understand and cope with these emotions.

Further Reading

Teaching Your Child to Identify and Express Emotions

Winning Ways to Talk with Young Children–from UF-IFAS EDIS


Lagattuta, K. H., Sayfan, L., & 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), 211-232. Inc. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2012.04.001

(Originally published in a slightly different form as: Church, C. (2012). Parents may be out of touch with children’s feelings. [Radio broadcast episode]. Family Album Radio. Gainesville, FL:  University of Florida.)

Photo Credits: Jupiterimages/Creatas/Thinkstock