Parental Warmth and Rejection

Maslow (1943) saw the need for love and affection as fundamental in human motivation and argued that “... the thwarting of these needs is the most commonly found core in cases of maladjustment and more severe psychopathology” (p. 381). Parental warmth consists of affection, positive regard, rewarding emotional expression, conveyance of a sense of caring about the child, supportive (as opposed to rejectingly critical) verbal statements, expression of the desire for the child to be happy and physically comfortable, and a desire to be with the child (e.g., Zhou et al., 2002).

The need for love, as outlined by Maslow, has been interpreted as part of a set of qualities that comprise innate sociability by Savage and Kanazawa (2004), who detail the reasoning for its evolutionary basis. Although the survival benefits of attachment behaviors in children could be emphasized, warmth may be an important adjunct as it also facilitates family cohesion, in this case by creating a reward system that maintains family closeness (e.g., MacDonald, 1992). MacDonald (1992) made the case for an evolutionary-based independent construct of warmth. He points to several factor-analytic studies where the warmth dimension has emerged spontaneously. MacDonald argues that the warm-cold dimension is a pan-human phenomenon, occurring across cultures and being therefore “of signal importance” (p. 754) for understanding human development. Prolonged parental dependency, he argues, results in the need for enormous parental investment. Securing that level of investment would require strong evolutionary pressures. As it happens, the human affectional system is comprised of intrinsic rewards and powerful motivators. MacDonald argues that the only plausible explanation for the evolution of the human affectional system is to support key survival behaviors associated with family relationships, parental investment, and mate choice. This would make the warmth dimension a foundational element of the parent-child relationship and of the development of the child.

We see the provision of warmth as a likely candidate for the “average expectable environment.” Those who study parenting across cultures report that expressing positive emotion toward children is “a universal strategy for regulating children’s emotion in the context of raising children” (Cole & Tan, 2007, p. 524), though culture influences the relative emphasis placed on the expression of warmth and how that warmth is expressed. While mothers from Western industrialized countries express more positive emotions to their children compared to mothers from other countries (Cole & Tan, 2008), physical contact is commonly emphasized in many non-Western cultures where co-sleeping and co-bathing is more prolonged (Rothbaum & Trommsdorff, 2008). Some societies are referred to as “back and hip cultures” in which “... children live on mothers’ bodies virtually all of the day and sleep close to mothers at night” (Rothbaum & Trommsdorff, 2008, p. 471). Soothing and holding are continuous in these societies. It is thought that children in highly developed countries may have greater pressures to achieve autonomy from parents, and this may explain the disdain that Western cultures have held for the “indulgence” of maternal physical closeness (Rothbaum & Trommsdorff, 2008).

Parental warmth in childhood is likely to have an impact on the emotional system. In one popular model of affective disturbance, the development of normal affective responsivity is seen as an interactive process between infants and caregivers (Field, 1987). Infants naturally respond with affection to pleasing stimuli, and caregivers provide stimuli to entertain the infant. Infants differ in respon- sivity to social stimulation, due to genes and experience. Caregivers read infant emotional displays and adapt their stimulation to suit the needs for stimulation and affective response of the infant. Particular problems have been noted when infants or mothers are emotionally depressed. Field (1987) notes that “Infants and young children appear to experience pronounced affective disturbances when they are chronically exposed to maternal deprivation in the form of neglect ... or inadequate stimulation and when their interactions are disrupted by separations and accompanying changes in their relationship” (p. 973). Buunk and Nauta (2000) argue that human motivation is primarily “social” Pettit and Bates (1989) conclude that the absence of positive parental behaviors is as important as the presence of negative parental behaviors in the etiology of problem development.

Parental warmth and rejection have received some limited attention in the empirical literature of the past decades, and developmental psychologists have come to understand that parental warmth has a great many benefits. The quality of parent-child interactions has been associated with cognitive and linguistic outcomes in preschool (Kelly, Morisset, Barnard, Hammond, & Booth, 1996; Petrill & Deater-Deckard, 2004) and children’s prosocial behavior in many studies (e.g., Hastings, Utendale, & Sullivan, 2008). Warmth influences early socialization. It gives children the feeling of being loved and respected, and this is thought to foster trust in a caregiver’s good intentions so that the child will develop a willingness to share feelings and other personal experiences (Laible & Thompson, 2008). Warmth also provides motivation for the child to comply and cooperate with relational partners. Even research by learning theorists has pointed to the fact that an emotionally warm model is more likely to be imitated (MacDonald, 1992). It is reasoned that children are more likely to pay attention to parents and care about pleasing them when the relationship is warm and supportive, even among adolescents. In this way, warmth may moderate the effectiveness of other parental practices (Eisenberg, Morris, McDaniel, & Spinrad, 2009) and make the child more receptive to the socializing influences of parents, peers, and siblings with whom they share warm relationships (Laible & Thompson, 2008). Warmth in relationships also fosters positive mood in the child which is also likely to enhance compliance (Laible & Thompson, 2008). Parental warmth has also been associated with the child’s development of empathy (e.g., Zhou et al., 2002), high self-esteem (Cote, 2009), social competence (Patterson, Cohn, & Kao, 1989), as well as morality and conscience development (MacDonald, 1992).

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