The effect of parental emotion regulation and quality of parent-child attachment on Sri Lankan adolescents’ emotion regulation ability.

December 25, 2020


Emotion regulation (ER) is defined as the internal and external processes involved in initiating, maintaining and modulating the occurrence, intensity and expression of emotions (Thompson 1994,27). Difficulties in ER has been identified as a common symptom of different psychopathologies, low academic performance, deviant behavior and low self-esteem (Petrides, Frederickson and Furham 2004, 275). In Sri Lanka, previous research has found both a low level of ER skills (Jayasekara et al 2014, 16),a high frequency of self-reported emotional problems among university students (Kathrarachhi 2001, 198) as well as a high prevalence rate of reported emotional abuse during late adolescence: 31.3% male 25.4% female adolescents (Perera, Ostbye, Ariyananda& Lelwala 2009, 13). Lack of maternal attachment has been seen to be a risk factor for emotional abuse among the youth in Sri Lanka (Fernandopulle 2000,).

Parental ER ability has been found to play a major role in the ER ability of the child. One manner in which a child’s ER can be enhanced is found to be through the enhancement of a parent’s ability to self-regulate (Sanders, 2008; Sanders and Mazzucchelli, 2013). Parent child attachment is another mechanism that aid in overriding developmental psychopathology even with children who have a difficult temperament (Barros, Goes & Pereira 2015, 299).

The type of culture the person belongs to i.e. whether it is independent or interdependent also influences the motivation to regulate emotions. The need for ER is given more emphasis in interdependent cultures like Sri Lanka as opposed to independent cultures such as Europe. Despite this emphasis, there is also a high prevalence rate of poor life skills such as low self-awareness, an inability to cope with emotions and stress, and a lack of empathy among Sri Lankan youth (UNICEF 2004, 2).

For the Sri Lankan school going adolescent, family is a major factor in promoting psychosocial wellbeing. Sixty percent of the adolescents consider their family to be close to them and fifty percent consider their family to be a refuge for their problems (UNICEF 2004, 4). Therefore family based interventions are more likely to be effective interms of promoting psychosocial wellbeing of adolescents.

Most previous research conducted related to emotional dimensions in Sri Lanka have largely focused on the topic of emotional abuse (Perera, 2009; Fernandopulle, 2000).These researches have also emphasized the need to implement strategies directed at parents to prevent emotional abuse (Fernandopulle 2000). Moreover, most research investigating familial influence on ER has focused on childhood (Morris 2007, 385). Furthermore, the influence of paternal ER has not been explored extensively (Morris 2007, 386). Therefore this research focused on both parents’ influence on the ER of an adolescent sample

The main objective of the study was to explore the relationship between parental ER, parent-adolescent attachment and an adolescent’s ER.


A sample of 233(Male=144, Female=89) school going adolescents between the age group of 12-14 (Grades 7, 8 & 9) and their parents (Male=136, Female=213) participated in this study. The sample was selected through convenience sampling. The adolescents were accessed from type AB, type C and type 2[1] schools in Colombo Educational Division. Each adolescent had at least one parent responding to the parental ER questionnaire. The parents were accessed during the parent teacher meetings. Parental consent was gained and the parents were also asked to fill in the questionnaire measuring their ER abilities. After the parents returned their questionnaires to the class teacher, the students were accessed on a separate day to fill out their set of questionnaires. The parent-child pair was identified and matched through the use of a coding system to ensure anonymity.

The Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS) (Gratz, 2004) and the Inventory of Parent and Peer attachment-revised-Parent Subscale (IPPA-R) (Gullone, 2005) were used for the study. The content and consensual validity of both scales to the Sri Lankan context were ensured prior to administration. Correlational and regression analysis were the main analysis techniques.

Results, discussion and conclusions

The first hypothesis of this study was found to be true as there was a positive relationship  between parental ER and adolescent ER( Mother: pearson r(208)=.305,Father: pearson r(122)=.377). This finding was concordant with previous research findings (Eisenberg&Morris, 2002). However, contrary to previous research that found mother’ ER ability to have a higher impact on adolescents’ ER ability, the present study finds that, fathers’ ER abilities had a greater impact on the adolescents’ ER abilities(Father: β=0.32,p<0.01,Mother:β=0.823,p=.526). This finding was similar to the findings of Zeman and Garber (1996, 960).

The patriarchal nature of the Sri Lankan family could be one reason as to why the father‘s ER ability had such a significant impact on adolescent ER ability. Moreover, in the present sample, mothers were seen to exhibit significantly higher ER difficulties than fathers (M=89.19,SD=18.08, r(329)=2.755,p<0.01). This could partly be due to the fact that emotional displays are more accepted in a female than a male. Males are expected to suppress their emotions. Hence, potentially, father‘s playing a larger role as an emotion socialization agent might serve as a protective element promoting ER ability in Sri Lankan adolescents. This has been seen in previous research where if the father has a more stable attachment relationship with offspring, they are in turn more likely to transmit similar attachment patterns (Cowan and Cowan 2005, 282) towards their fathers. This also emphasizes the need to incorporate paternal ER training when implementing therapeutic interventions for adolescents with ER difficulties. In the current context, it is the mother who most often brings a child to mental health services. The need to incorporate the father in to this is highlighted through this research.

Adolescents of middle and lower socio economic status (SES) were seen to have more ER difficulties (Middle SES: M=93.12 SD=18.12:Lower SES: M=103 SD=10.34) than adolescents from higher SES (M=86.93 SD=19.48). This emphasizes the need to initiate parent and adolescent based ER interventions in type C and type 2 schools where there is a higher concentration of adolescents of middle and lower SES.

Findings from the current study indicated that there was a negative relationship between quality of parent child attachment and ER difficulties (Mother: spearman r(225)=-.220,Father: spearman r(219) =-.233).When considering attachment to mother and father separately, father‘s attachment(β=-.277,p<0.01) was seen to be more important in predicting ER ability in the adolescents than attachment towards mother(β=.059,p=.629).This was in contrast to previous research findings. Therefore interventions focusing on parent-adolescent attachment enhancement will benefit adolescents at risk of ER difficulties (Marvin, Cooper, Hoffman and Powell  2002, 122).

In conclusion external familial factors such as parental ER and quality of parent child attachment were found to be important influencing factors in the development of adolescent ER. These findings support the need to implement programs that target enhancement of parental ER and quality of parent-child attachment with a special focus on fathers as a method of improving adolescents’ ER ability.


Author – Mrs. Tehani Gunawardene,

Clinical Psychologist – Mind Heals Pvt Ltd,

Senior Lecturer – University of Peradeniya


Mind Heals is a social service oriented organization incorporated under the laws of Sri Lanka with the primary objective of supporting the nation to relieve from adverse emotional/ psychological/ mental health conditions. Mind Heals introduces a ‘Digital Health Service platform’ specifically focused on mental health care and psychotherapy services. The platform brings together licensed professionals serving diversified areas of psychology and mental health, to provide accessible mental health care.

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