Do maternal protective behaviors alleviate toddlers' fearful distress?

Kristin A. Buss, Elizabeth J. Kiel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Parenting behaviors during times when young children may feel vulnerable, such as when encountering novelty, undoubtedly affect how children learn to regulate their reactions to these events. Theory suggests and some research supports the link between protective behavior - behaviors that shield the child from a potential threat - and regulation of emotions. Less is known, however, about the immediate effects of these behaviors on children's distress. That is, do these protective behaviors alleviate distress in the moment? Presumably, this type of ''successful'' regulation of distress would be important for the development of successful regulation in other situations. To this end, the current study examined changes in the time course of toddlers' fearful distress, when protective maternal behaviors were observed during a highly novel, fear-eliciting task. Analyses were conducted for two subgroups of dyads: one group where toddlers' distress preceded mothers' protective behavior, and one group where mothers' protective behavior preceded toddler distress. When toddlers' distress preceded mothers' reactions, protective behaviors were found to be associated with less steep decreases in fear for toddlers who had the highest initial distress reactions. Results are discussed in the context of toddlers' emerging ability to regulate emotions and the adaptive development of these skills.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)136-143
Number of pages8
JournalInternational Journal of Behavioral Development
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Psychology
  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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