Emotional Kids in High and Low Stress Environments

Becky 2009 by BLW photography As Dr. Brian and I discussed during in the show Anatomy of Personality back in September 2009, studies have tended to show that highly emotionally reactive adults and children who tend to fluctuate easily between feelings such as sadness, anger, anxiety, and jealousy have more difficulties in their daily experience. However, recent research published in the February 2010 issue of Child Development suggests that this is not always the case.

Researchers Jelena Obradovic and her colleagues looked at the interaction between highly emotionally reactive children and the environment that they are in. Their study included 338 kids between 5 and 6 years of age. The researchers wanted to look at the impact of “stress reactivity” on childrens’ daily experiences in terms of acting out behaviour, prosocial behaviour, school appreciation and school grades. Previous research might have led one to believe that highly emotionally reactive kindergarten kids would be more likely to act out inappropriately, be more antisocial, dislike school and have lower school grades. However, the results were more complex than this. Obradovic and her colleagues found while highly reactive kids could be more likely to have these difficulties than the average kid, they could also be less likely to have these problems.

The difference appears to be the environment highly reactive children are in. In a high adversity family situation, very emotionally reactive children faired poorly on the measures mentioned above. However, in a low adversity situation, highly emotionally reactive kids actually did better on these measures than kids who showed low levels of emotional reactivity. That is, a child showing high emotional responsiveness in a low adversity family situation was better behaved, more altruistic, enjoyed school more and had better grades than his emotionally stoic counterpart. These finding suggest that we can hope to improve the lives of children who have naturally high levels of emotional reactivity by reducing the stress or adversity they face in their home environment. The implications of the study lead to the conclusion that providing psychological and material support to the families of these highly emotionally reactive kids can help both with their behaviour and school performance.

You can find the full-text article from the journal Child Development here.

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