Aggression, defined as behavior intended to harm others, is one of the most common types of childhood behavioral problems [1
]. Physical and relational aggression are the two most common forms of aggression used by children during the early childhood years [3
]. Whereas physical aggression involves harming or threatening harm by means of physical damage (e.g., hitting and pushing), relational aggression is defined as harm or the threat of damage that is intended to manipulate or damage peer relationships (e.g. spreading rumors and threats to withdraw friendship) [4
]. Aggressive children have been found to have high levels of psychological distress, low levels of prosocial behavior, and high levels of peer rejection [5
]. Because of the numerous difficulties experienced by aggressive children, antecedents of childhood aggression are crucial to understand for developing prevention and intervention programs.
Parenting and family experiences are a key context in which children’s socio-emotional behaviors develop [6
]. The parenting environment is especially influential during the preschool years when children are most open to parental influence [10
]. In particular, studies have identified parental emotional regulation approaches as an important influencing factor for child behaviors and developmental outcomes [11
]. Although there has been an increasing number of studies in the area of mothers’ emotional regulation and children’s externalizing behaviours [14
], they are limited in their cross-sectional design, the lack of examination of fathers’ influence, and lack of representation of non-Western samples. To the best of our knowledge, no studies have investigated the precise role of parental emotional regulation in the development of children’s physical and relational aggression. This study explores associations of mothers’ and fathers’ emotional regulation and the use of physical and relational aggression by young children using a Chinese sample. This study will inform the understanding of how parental emotional regulation among Chinese parents affects child’s physical and relational aggression for developing practices to prevent or intervene children’s aggression through parental emotional regulation.
Emotional regulation refers to the processes responsible for monitoring, evaluating, and modifying emotional reactions to accomplish one’s goals [17
]. These skills are considered a cornerstone of psychosocial functioning, with poorer emotional regulation implicated in many health and mental disorders [18
]. Two specific emotional regulation strategies in adults are commonly conceptualised and measured. Cognitive reappraisal refers to the ability to change thoughts associated with an emotion-inducing event in such a way as to modify its emotional impact [20
]. Reappraisal is generally considered a highly adaptive emotional regulation approach associated with more positive psychosocial outcomes [21
]. Emotional suppression refers to a strategy whereby individuals refrain from acknowledging or expressing emotions in an effort to regulate them [20
] and is typically considered a maladaptive approach associated with poorer psychosocial outcomes over time [21
Although parental emotional regulation is suggested to be important in shaping how parents act as emotion socialization agents for their children, it remains an understudied topic [22
]. Numerous studies have demonstrated the links between parents’ self-regulation and children’s outcomes [24
]. However, only a few studies [14
] have examined the links between parental use of emotional regulation strategies and children’s social behaviours, such as externalizing (e.g., impulsivity and hyperactivity) and prosocial (e.g., helping and sharing) behaviour, with none addressing childhood aggression specifically. In general, these studies find that higher use of adaptive emotional regulation approaches, including reappraisal, and lower use of maladaptive emotional regulation strategies, including suppression, by parents is associated with more positive social-emotional development in children. For instance, Crespo and colleagues [14
] studied 454 American mothers and their children aged 3–7-years-old. These researchers found that children’s difficulties with emotional regulation mediated the relation between mothers’ lower emotion awareness and both internalizing and externalizing, whereas there was no significant direct associations between maternal difficulties with emotional regulation and children’s externalising behaviour problems, Specifically, maternal difficulties with emotional regulation were associated with higher levels of emotional negativity in children which in turn was associated with more externalizing behaviour problems in children. In an intervention study with 139 Australian children aged 29–83 months and their caregivers (93% mothers) referred for parenting support, it was found that increased use of cognitive reappraisal by caregivers was associated with a decline in children’s externalizing behavior problems [16
]. A further recent study documented that higher levels of emotional suppression in caregivers (86% mothers) was associated with fewer prosocial behaviours in 3-year-old children in the US, with reappraisal by caregivers having no significant association [15
In relation to childhood aggression specifically, parental adaptive emotional regulation, characterised by high levels of reappraisal and low levels of suppression, might reduce a child’s use of aggression through modelling processes and an influence on parenting behaviors. First, children may observe and imitate their parents’ emotional regulation capacities [27
]. It is possible that parents’ own emotional profiles and interactions implicitly teach children which emotions are acceptable and expected in the family environment, and how to manage the experience of those emotions [11
]. It is also possible that parental emotional regulation creates a family emotional climate through which children will learn the appropriateness of emotional displays [29
]. As a result, parents’ modelling of poor emotional regulation approaches and children’s social references of these regulation strategies may contribute to children’s poor regulation. In fact, children with behavior problems have consistently been found to have limited emotion understanding, to display more negative emotions, and to have poorer capacity to regulate these emotions [31
Second, parents’ emotional regulation will affect their parenting practices. Parenting often involves numerous challenges and demands that require parents to remain calm and maintain positive affect in order to set clear limits for child behaviour and consistently follow through on stated rules. For parents with adaptive emotional regulation, they may be more responsive to their children’s emotional needs and emphasize empathic goals and problem solving strategies in the processes of socialization, which nurture their children to regulate negative emotions and undesirable tendencies that may result in aggression [33
]. On the other hand, parents with poorer emotional regulation capacities may show higher levels of hostility and rejection and lower levels of emotional availability, which creates a context that is less supportive of children’s emotional and behavioural adjustment [24
In addition to a notable lack of research on the role of parental emotional regulation strategy use and children’s relational and physical aggression overall, there is a distinct lack of examination of mothers vs fathers and moderation of any effects by child gender. Given the complexity of family dynamics, delineating effects by parent and child gender is crucial in child and family studies. Traditionally, Chinese fathers have been regarded as the strict parent who is responsible for disciplining children in the family, with their general involvement in other aspects of parenting considered lower than mothers’ [38
]. However, because of modernization and westernization, families in China, including Hong Kong, have undergone numerous changes in more recent years. For instance, gendered parenting roles have become less pervasive as most Hong Kong women aspire to obtain higher education and achieve an active working life [39
]. As a result, Chinese fathers are becoming more involved in child rearing and are considered important socializing agents in children’s development [40
The role of fathers’ emotional regulation strategies in children’s social emotional development, particularly in aggression, has been largely unaddressed in the research literature to date. Contemporary fathers, including Chinese fathers, aspire to be actively involved in their children’s development [42
]. Studies have also documented the positive influence of fathering on child developmental outcomes [43
] and have shown a significant relation between fathers’ ER and their parenting practices [44
]. Hence, understanding how fathers’ parenting can be promoted from infancy by facilitating prenatal ER is considered critical.
Available evidence from work examining fathers’ parenting and self-regulatory approaches more generally yields mixed findings. Some studies suggest that fathers’ behaviors exert a stronger influence than mothers’. For example, compared to mother-infant interactions, father-infant interactions have had stronger associations with infants’ [45
] (Portugal) and toddlers’ emotional regulation [46
] (United States); and paternal, but not maternal psychological aggression predicted children’s emotional regulation in middle childhood [47
] (China). Still other studies suggest that fathers exert an equal influence to mothers. For example, fathers’ emotional dysregulation was found to be as likely to influence levels of parent–child aggression in families with pre-schoolers in the United States as mothers’ dysregulation [48
]. It is clear that more research is needed to better establish the role of fathers’ emotional regulation.
Child gender is also an important consideration and may moderate relations among parenting and children’s social-emotional development. Previous studies have suggested that boys and girls differed in their response to maternal emotional expression [49
]. Some literature suggests that parents are more likely to socialize daughters’ emotional and social development than sons, and that girls are more sensitive to family affective environment than boys [11
]. However, other research has documented that both mothers and fathers used more emotional language with boys than with girls [52
], and lower levels of maternal sensitivity have been found to be particularly detrimental to boys in terms of their development of externalizing behavior problems [53
]. It is clear that further research on the role of child gender in the context of emotional regulation by both mothers and fathers is warranted.
Differences in cultural and parenting norms are likely to influence parents’ emotional regulation approaches and the ways in which they influence children’s social-emotional development. While most research to date on parents’ emotional regulation and children’s social-emotional functioning has been done with Western participants, there is a growing field of research with Chinese participants and other collectivist cultures. However, these studies have yielded mixed results. On one hand, it is possible that although suppression has typically been found to be maladaptive, the maladaptive consequences of suppression may be culturally relative. Specifically, among collectivist cultures, freely expressed emotions, particularly negative emotions, are often discouraged as they are thought to disrupt group cohesiveness and social harmony [54
]. For example, Butler, Lee and Gross [55
] and Cheung and Park [56
] found that suppressers who held Western-European values had poorer social and emotional outcomes during interpersonal interactions than did suppressers who held Asian values. Similarly, Yuan et al. [57
] and Soto et al. [58
] found that suppression may be more adaptive among participants in the Chinese context than in Western cultures. In contrast, other studies have identified the costs associated with suppressing with Chinese and Chinese American samples, including psychological distress, social functioning difficulties, and health issues [59
]. Given the limited existing evidence base and the to-date mixed findings, the present study is necessary to better understand the associations between parental emotional regulation and child aggression within the Chinese context.
Researchers have increasingly realized the importance of the fathers’ role in children’s development [61
]. However, relatively less studies have examined how fathers’ emotional regulation strategies may be associated with children’s aggression and even fewer studies have been conducted in a Chinese context. The present study used a Hong Kong Chinese sample to explore the direct relations between both mothers’ and fathers’ emotional regulation and child aggression. This study also explored whether the association between mothers’ and fathers’ emotional regulation and child aggression would be moderated by child gender. Based on previous work, it was hypothesized that higher use of reappraisal by both mothers and fathers would be related to lower physical and relational aggression in children. Because of the cultural context, we hypothesized that higher levels of suppression used by mothers and fathers would also be related to lower physical and relational aggression in children, in our study conducted in a collectivist culture. Given the mixed findings to date about the role of fathers and the effect of child gender, we had no specific hypotheses about the nature and strength of father associations compared to mother associations on boys versus girls.
Emotional regulation skills develop across the lifespan but may take on particular relevance during parenthood when parents must manage their own emotions while simultaneously facilitating their children’s regulation of emotions and behaviors [68
]. The present study explores an important gap in the literature by examining the contribution of parental emotional regulation on children’s aggression using a Chinese Hong Kong sample. Consistent with existing studies [14
], the present study found that parents’ emotional regulation is directly relevant to children’s social behaviors. More specifically, we found that maternal, but not paternal, emotional regulation was related to child aggression. Such findings are consistent with previous research suggesting that mothers have a stronger influence on child socioemotional outcomes because they are more likely to be involved in the development of children’s ability to cope or manage their emotional expression and experience [51
]. A number of implications for future research and practice are discussed below.
Contrary to our hypothesis, maternal reappraisal was found to predict higher levels of physical and relational aggression. Cognitive reappraisal involves changing thoughts associated with an emotion-inducing event that has been acknowledged [20
]. For example, a parent who is experiencing a stressful work event may use cognitive reappraisal to regulate the induced negative emotions by acknowledging and accepting her negative emotions, followed by an evaluation of the benefits or opportunities that the event may bring. These processes are important prerequisite to the execution of a solution. Compared to that of emotional suppression, the the internal nature of cognitive reappraisal is more complex and may not provide a context in which this regulatory approach could be learned [6
]. Socialization involves parents’ direct and indirect influences on children’s experience as well as regulation of emotions and behaviours through parents’ own expression of emotion, responsiveness, and guidance [22
]. Through observing their mothers’ use of reappraisal in regulating their own emotions, children may learn to be aware and accept their own emotions indirectly, but not necessarily learn to manage their emotions through the execution of a solution effectively. As a result, a lack of direct guidance and instruction (e.g., emotion coaching) from the parent to the child in a healthy, age-appropriate way may leave children with fewer strategies for managing their negative emotion or solving peer conflicts, in which they may use more aggression to express the negative emotions induced by their interpersonal problems that they have identified and experienced. The above findings highlight the importance of providing trainings for parents and children so that they can both learn to use effective emotional regulation strategies directly. Clinicians and parent educators can also coach parents to teach children how to manage their emotions through the execution of a solution to resolve peer conflicts, in addition to only identifying and being aware of their negative emotions. As parents’ reappraisal processes may not be explicit and verbalised, parents should also be supported to verbalise the emotional regulation strategies they use so that they can influence children’s own emotional regulation and aggression.
Consistent with existing studies that the maladaptive consequences of suppression may be culturally relative and that suppression is not related to externalizing behaviors such as aggression in collectivist cultures [55
], we found evidence supporting our hypothesis that higher levels of maternal suppression predicted lower relational aggression in children. As freely expressed emotion, particularly negative emotions, is often discouraged for maintaining group cohesiveness in the Chinese context [54
], mothers may try to protect their children from experiencing adverse responses by hiding their feelings from their children. As a result, the use of suppression may be somewhat normalized and accepted by children in Hong Kong. Specifically, children may learn by observing and interacting with their mothers that suppressing their emotions and refraining from acting in ways that would disrupt social harmony is appropriate and hence, reduces children’s use of relational aggression. Although suppression was found to decrease children’s relational aggression as a negative expression, numerous studies have suggested the use of suppression as a risk factor for internalizing problems such as increased depressive and anxiety symptoms in both Western [74
]and Asian collectivist cultures [59
]. It has also been suggested that suppression may hinder parents’ ability to respond sensitively and appropriately to children’s emotions, which can be particularly damaging in the context of parent–child relationships [76
]. Therefore, more studies investigating parental suppression, child suppression, child aggression and child internalizing problems in the Chinese context are needed to better understand the nature and influences of suppression in diverse cultures. Nevertheless, the findings suggested that parents with low levels of suppression in the Chinese culture may be a risk factor for children’s aggressive behaviors, clinicians and parent educators should encourage a balance between appropriate parental emotional expression and suppression.
In this study, neither the model with both fathers and mothers included, or an independent model with only fathers, yielded significant associations between paternal emotional regulation strategies and children’s aggression. The finding is in contrast to more general studies on the role of fathers in children’s social-emotional development which suggest an at-least-equal-to, if not greater, influence as mothers [45
]. However, most prior studies have been conducted with Western samples and none, to our knowledge, have specifically examined paternal emotional regulation and childhood aggression. It is likely that our findings reflect a context in which mothers are the main caretakers of children and thus more likely to be involved in the socialization of children’s emotional and social behaviors. As such, it is possible that the level of paternal involvement would moderate the relation between paternal emotional regulation and child aggression, in which fathers’ emotional regulation would only influence child aggression when they are highly involved in their development. Nevertheless, as role expectations for mothers and fathers continue to change in Chinese societies, further research is required to replicate these findings and further understand potential mediators of these associations. For example, while paternal emotional regulation was not a significant influence in the current study, it may have an important influence on children’s aggressive behaviors through externalized parenting acts by fathers including expressed warmth, hostility, and engagement in home learning activities. Importantly, evidence produced by the current study, along with others, can be used to inform the target audience and behaviors of parenting support programs that aim to influence child developmental outcomes. For example, differentiated interventions might be needed for mothers vs fathers, with different targets for knowledge and behavior change.
While there was no statistically significant evidence of moderation by child gender in this study, there was a trend toward stronger associations between maternal emotional regulation and girls’ aggression, which may have reached significance with a larger sample size. In particular, mothers’ use of suppression was associated with lower levels of both relational and physical aggression for girls. Girls may be particularly susceptible to the socialization of suppression as they use their mothers as role models to guide behavior. As discussed above, suppression in the collectivist culture may act to reduce overt aggression and maintain social cohesion, and this may be particularly so for girls. This finding reflects prior research that suggests girls are more sensitive to mothers’ emotional expression and parenting approaches than boys [50
]. Further research is needed to develop a more comprehensive understanding of a range of parental influences in relation to the development of childhood aggression. The implications of differential associations for boys and girls are that different intervention targets and approaches for boys and girls might be needed to intervene on or prevent aggressive behaviors.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.