Children's emotions in pictures

Research: Small children have the ability to express difficult emotions after a relationship breakdown through the use of pictures and books, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Stavanger.

- The results show that children who have experienced a relationship breakdown experience more concern, sadness, loneliness and frustration than other children, says Professor Ingunn Størksen.

Among the children who express difficult emotions, a mix of reactions, such as sadness and frustration combined with playfulness and joy, is seen.

Explaining emotions with picture cards
The study was conducted by using picture cards showing various emotions and day-to-day experiences. The findings of the study build not only on the way the children sorted the cards, but also on the spontaneous things they said in connection with the sorting of the cards.

According to the study, children may react to the breakdown of their parents' relationship in various ways. They may experience sorrow and worry, not only for their own sake, but also for their parents, and in relation to practical changes in their daily life.

Some of the small children who had experienced a relationship breakdown were worried that their mother and father were feeling sad.

- Worrying about parents is a topic that has been studied regarding older children and young people, but such a feeling of worry about the parents among small children has not been described before, neither in Norwegian nor international research.

- Some of the children had additional worries, such as the "loss of the old house", or a missing father, says Størksen.

However, the study also found children who did not experience difficult feelings in connection with the relationship breakdown.

Day care ensures safety
Some of the children seemed to be doing fine. The study reminds one of the importance of the day care as a provider of a safe and stable environment, and that the educators take their time to familiarise themselves with the unique experiences of the child.

- When a child experiences a relationship breakdown, it is of utmost importance that the child is met with extra warmth and care. The use of children's literature with illustrations may, most likely, help the children in expressing some of their own emotions, says Størksen.

Almost forty 5-year olds participated in the study, and about half of them had experienced the breakdown of the relationship between their parents.

The study was conducted in day cares and the children were asked to sort the picture cards from what looked the most similar to how they normally felt, to what was the most dissimilar to how they normally felt.

- The procedure was to start with what was the most similar and the most dissimilar. Thereafter, the researchers moved inwards in the matrix towards themes experienced as more neutral by the child. Every child was given individual assistance in the sorting process, explains Størksen.

A suitable method for a difficult topic
In most cases the sorting of cards appeared to be a gentle way of communicating with the children on difficult topics.

-However, some of the children also found it difficult, and were affected by relating to difficult feelings like sadness, loneliness, worry and frustration.

There is little research in Norway on the emotions and experiences of small children after suffering a relationship breakdown between their parents. Existing research has often focused on older children, youth and adult children of divorced parents.

- Even though it is hard to generalise from the study, it gives indications about emotions children might have, says Størksen.

Størksen, Thorsen, Øverland, & Brown: Experiences of daycare children of divorce, Early Child Development and Care, published online: 15 Jul 2011, doi: 10.1080/03004430.2011.585238.


Children holding hands