Children’s and Parents’ Perceptions of Vulnerability as Weakness: Associations with Children’s Well-Being

Jessica L. Borelli, Patricia A. Smiley, Gerin Gaskin, Phoebe T. Pham, Meghan Kussman, Ben Shahar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objectives: The importance of vulnerability expression for well-being is a prominent theme in contemporary psychology, but empirical support for this claim is lacking, including evidence for the belief that males are less open to states of vulnerability than females, and that people who are more judgmental of vulnerability experience difficulties in emotion regulation, and psychological well-being. Robust theoretical perspectives (attachment theory, emotion socialization) hold that children’s views regarding vulnerability originate within the parent-child relationship; here we empirically examine parents’ and children’s views regarding vulnerability. Methods: We explored school-aged children’s (8 to 12 years) and their parents’ (N = 121) meta-emotional distress regarding vulnerability, as well as their perceptions of experiencing vulnerability as weak or strong, and their affective and behavioral reactions to vulnerability. We also compared perceptions of physical versus emotional vulnerability. Results: There were few gender differences in perceptions of vulnerability; however, children and parents evaluated physical vulnerability more favorably than emotional vulnerability. While meta-emotional distress to vulnerability was not consistently associated with emotion dysregulation or psychopathology, perceiving vulnerability as weak and as a reason to distance oneself, to not like the experiencer (children) or to discourage such expression (parents), were robustly associated with depressive symptoms and rejection sensitivity. Conclusions: Building relationships in which expressions of vulnerability—especially emotional vulnerability (states of fear and sadness)—are accepted and perceived as a means of building emotional resilience comports with attachment theory and with emotion- and attachment-based therapy principles.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2727-2741
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Child and Family Studies
Issue number10
StatePublished - 1 Oct 2019


  • Attachment
  • Depression
  • Emotion
  • Middle childhood
  • Parent-child
  • Vulnerability

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


Dive into the research topics of 'Children’s and Parents’ Perceptions of Vulnerability as Weakness: Associations with Children’s Well-Being'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this