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

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


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

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature.


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


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