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Associations between parenting and children’s socio-emotional well-being: the role of empathy and social understanding

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posted on 2023-06-08, 14:59 authored by Nikki Luke
The socio-emotional well-being of maltreated children is a key priority for practitioners and policy-makers alike; yet not enough is known about the developmental mechanisms that might link children's parenting experiences with their psychosocial adjustment. Previous research suggests that parental abuse and neglect can have adverse effects on children's peer relationships and self-perceptions. Emerging theoretical and empirical work suggests that children's social understanding and empathy could play a key role as mediators of these effects, but we have little knowledge about the differentiated pathways that might be uncovered by adopting a multidimensional conceptualisation of parenting experiences, social understanding and empathy, and peer reputations and self-perceptions. This thesis includes five papers reporting on a programme of empirical research conducted in order to address this gap in knowledge. The first, a meta-analysis and systematic review, revealed a complex and differentiated profile of social understanding among maltreated children. The second paper reports on a thematic analysis of a focus group and detailed semi-structured individual interviews with foster carers. In line with our theoretical model, carers readily identified children's difficulties with social understanding and empathy as relevant explanations for their socio-emotional problems. The third paper presents a new multidimensional self-report measure of empathy in children, demonstrating differentiated connections with socio-emotional functioning. The fourth paper presents comparisons between maltreated children in foster care and their classmates at school (aged 7-11 years), using measures that assess their peer reputations, self-perceptions, social understanding and empathy. Results indicate both direct links from maltreatment status to self-perceptions, as well as indirect links via children's theory of mind skills, their prosocial responses to others' emotional states and their behavioural reputations. The final paper delves deeper into the variations within the non-maltreated sample, uncovering links between specific features of the children's parenting experiences and their behavioural reputations, peer status and self-perceptions, via emotion understanding and empathic responses. Overall, the findings from this programme of research highlight the interplay of parenting experiences and socio-emotional competence in understanding school-aged children's psychosocial functioning. The results carry implications for further research as well as for applied work to support maltreated children and the adults who work with and care for them.


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  • doctoral

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  • eng


University of Sussex

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