Positive parent-child reminiscing helps early emotional development
Photo: Nongbri Family Pix. Creative Commons. 

Positive parent-child reminiscing about past experience helps early childhood emotional development, but maltreated children experience less of it

By Child & Family Blog Editor and , | November 2019 

Reminiscing has been described as “emotional socialisation”, nurturing a child’s emotional development. Parents sensitively reminiscing about earlier experiences with their children is part of early childhood emotional development.

Is maltreatment by parents associated with less quantity and quality of parent-child reminiscing on the child’ past, and, if so, is this a mechanism by which maltreatment leads to poorer early childhood emotional development?

Researchers who asked this question in a recent study found a pathway between maltreatment and emotional development. Specifically:

  • Maltreatment predicts less sensitivity in reminiscing activity (less encouragement, more criticism); perhaps these parents are less able to reminisce about the past, or they are less sensitive to the child while reminiscing.
  • Less sensitive reminiscing predicts less developed emotion regulation and less inhibitory control on the part of the child.

Reminiscing has been described as “emotional socialisation”, nurturing a child’s emotional development. Other research has shown that parents’ sensitively reminiscing about earlier experiences with their children plays a significant role in early childhood emotional development. Conversely, children of mothers who are unable to discuss past emotional experiences with their children in a sensitive way are more likely to display deficits in remembering their past lives, understanding emotions and regulating their emotions.

In this based experiment, the researchers worked with mothers only, acknowledging that later research should include fathers and others who are likely to reminisce with young children. The study, based in the USA, involved 111 maltreating mothers and 65 non-maltreating mothers of 3- to 6-year-old children, all from similar demographic backgrounds.

The researchers asked the mothers to reminisce with their children about four past emotional events – one in which the child was happy, then others in which the child was sad, angry and scared. The sessions were videotaped and coded against measures of how well the mother stayed focused on the task, how encouraging and non-critical the mother was towards her child, how engaged and interested the child remained, how the mother responded to negative emotions, how well the mother worked with the child jointly to construct stories, how well the stories matched the happy/sad/angry/scared themes, and how fluent and clear the stories were.

The researchers homed in on three specific components of early childhood emotional development to measure:

  • ‘lability/negativity’ – things like wide mood swings and quickly becoming frustrated
  • ‘emotion regulation’ – things like being empathetic towards others and responding positively to peers
  • ‘inhibitory control’ – the ability to control attention and not react compulsively.

The first two were measured by asking the mothers to complete questionnaires. Inhibitory control was tested with the children by giving them a task that could challenge them – saying “day” when presented with pictures featuring the moon, and “night” when presented with pictures featuring the sun.

The researchers found a pathway to two of the early childhood emotional development outcomes, emotion regulation and inhibitory control; they did not find a pathway to child lability/negativity. However, children who experience maltreatment are more likely to show greater lability/negativity. So the correlation between maltreatment and poorer emotional development does not appear to be influenced by how well the mother is able to engage in reminiscing with the child. Alternatively, it may be a deficit in the research method, given that all forms of maltreatment were lumped into one, and the impacts of different levels/types of maltreatment on emotional development might be significant.

Of course, reminiscing with parents is not the only activity that supports early childhood emotional development. Interactive reading and conversation through free play, for example, are other ways to enhance child emotional development. Other research has shown some differences in outcomes between these types of parental engagement. Reminiscing activity has a stronger link with language and literacy than does reading books together, for example.


 Speidel R, Valentino K, McDonnell CG, Cummings EM & Fondren K (2019), Maternal sensitive guidance during reminiscing in the context of child maltreatment: Implications for child self-regulatory processes, Developmental Psychology, 55.1

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