Parents play a crucial role for kids during times of stress and change, researchers say

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Times of transition are especially difficult for young kids

While previous studies have highlighted the importance of parents keeping their cool around their kids, a new study found that parents serve as the best guide for their young ones during times of stress. 

Researchers from the University of Illinois say that parents who take on a “coaching” role could help their kids better manage big moments of transition or stressful times. 

“As we’re thinking about the transition to middle school, we’re looking at the extent to which mothers are encouraging their child to use active, engaged coping strategies, such as problem solving, help-seeking, or reframing or thinking about the situation in less threatening or negative ways,” said researcher Kelly Tu. 

Developing strong coping skills

While college can be a stressful time for parents and kids, the researchers chose to focus their attention on a much earlier transition: elementary school to middle school. 

The researchers were interested in seeing how mothers would help their kids handle situations typical of this time in their lives, like being left out of a social group or potential anxiety around fitting in and making new friends. 

The study itself was comprised of two parts. In the first section, the mothers self-reported on how they’d help their kids navigate such social situations. In the second part, the mothers and kids discussed real-life situations that dealt with similar topics while the researchers observed. 

The study revealed that kids who had higher physical reactions to these discussions responded better to suggestions that were more self-focused and less about directly tackling issues, whereas the opposite framework worked best for kids who had lower physical reactions. 

The researchers suggest that parents take these findings into consideration, as knowing how to best address these problems with their kids, and understanding their kids’ needs, can be incredibly beneficial during times of transition. 

“We found that mothers’ active, engaging coping suggestions were more beneficial for low reactive youth,” said Tu. “Low reactive youth may not be attending to cues in these conversations about stressful or challenging peer experiences, and so they behave in ways that are unexpected, non-normative, or inappropriate. But when parents give them specific advice for how to manage challenging peer situations, this appears to be helpful.” 

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