The role of Alexithymia in Parent-Child Interaction and in the Emotional Ability of Autistic Children

Autistic children often experience more emotional difficulties than neurotypical children. While the éprouver parent-child interaction plays a critical role in the emotional development of a child, alexithymia can influence the interaction of the parents. This study compared the interaction of 35 autistic and 41 neurotypical children with their parents and examined the relationship of alexithymia and emotional difficulties. The findings revealed that parents of autistic children interact less with their children compared to parents of neurotypical children. However, children’s’ alexithymia had a stronger influence on passive interaction than autism did. Furthermore, the study found, that the parent-child interaction only explained the relationship between a child’s autism and their emotional difficulties, when alexithymia was not considered. The results highlight the influence of children’s alexithymia on the relationship with their parents and resulting emotional difficulties. Interventions for improving the parent-child interactions and the emotional abilities of autistic children revolve around addressing alexithymia. 

It is common for children on the autism spectrum to suffer from emotional difficulties, such as intensified emotional reactivity or a reduced ability to regulate their emotions. Compared to neurotypical children, they often experience emotional difficulties. Both emotional reactivity and emotion regulation are key aspects for the child’s emotional development. There are various factors to influence a children’s ability to regulate their emotions, especially their interaction with their parents. Moreover, alexithymia in children can be a factor responsible for a decrease in parent-child interaction, potentially influencing the development of emotional stability. Alexithymia is the inability to recognize, distinguish, or describe emotions in oneself or in others. So far, previous studies show an increase in emotional reactivity and a decrease of adaptive emotion regulation strategies in autistic children compared to neurotypical children. Studies cite various factors responsible for emotional difficulties in autistic children, such as sensory hypersensitivity, insistence on sameness, or an impairment of predictive abilities. An adaptive expression and regulation of emotion in autistic children is important, as it influences the successful emotional and social development.


Parents play an important role in the development of children’s emotional abilities. The parents assist their children in developing emotion regulation abilities, like self-soothing or problem solving, and serve as emotional role models. This is especially beneficial for children on the autism spectrum. While the emotion regulation abilities develop in the first year of life, the parents’ interaction with their children help to stimulate emotions and calm the negative ones. As seen in neurotypical children, parents can help their children to develop more positive emotions and better emotion regulation strategies by being responsive to their needs and providing emotional support. Several studies regarding autism, emotion regulation, and parent-child interaction have shown, that the mothers parenting style and the interaction between the child and parents, can predict the child’s emotion regulation abilities. However, these studies did not include research on the underlying factors responsible for the parent-child interaction and emotion regulation strategies in autistic children. Regarding autistic children, these factors are probably much more complex than for neurotypical children.


So far, studies on the parent-child interaction in autistic children show inconsistent results. While there is evidence that children on the autism spectrum can form secure forms of attachments, the overall rate of secure attachment is lower than in neurotypical children. In addition, autistic children show more negative emotions during interactions with their parents and are less sensitive and involved than neurotypical children. This in turn, can influence how the parents interact with their children. One psychological model describes that the parents’ interaction is influenced by the child themself. Specifically, influenced by the child’s reactivity and emotionality during the parents’ initial interaction. In turn, the parents’ reaction influences the child’s expression of emotion.

So far, research has been able to show, that mother-interactions develop differently in autistic children compared to neurotypical children. It is explained by the fact, that autistic children often . But those are not the only factors to influence the parent-child relationship in autistic children. Another factor of influence is alexithymia, which makes it difficult for individuals to understand and express their and others’ emotions. Alexithymia is known to negatively influence a secure attachment in neurotypical children. Regarding children on the autism spectrum, alexithymia is relatively common. The missing emotional response of the child due to alexithymia could be a reason for the parents to give up faster on interacting emotionally. This in turn could affect the children’s emotional ability and strain the parent-child interaction.


Our study aimed to understand if parents of autistic children interact less with their children than the parents of neurotypical children. We also wanted to find out if a child’s alexithymia influences the parent-child interactions. Additionally, we predicted that the parent-child interactions influence the emotional difficulties of children with autism. Our study consisted of 35 children with autism and 41 neurotypical children with their parents. The children were between the ages of three and 13, while the parents were aged 26 to 53.


Our results showed that most parents of neurotypical children showed a strong interaction with their children, while the parents of autistic children did not. Regarding the effect of alexithymia on the parent-child interaction, we found that the children of parents who interacted little with them had more often alexithymia, than the children of parents who interacted more. Our study also found that the relationship between parents and their children does not influence the child’s expression of negative emotions. However, we found that parents of autistic children interacted less, which resulted in more neutral emotions and less positive emotions, as well as less adaptive emotion regulation strategies in autistic children. When we factored the children’s alexithymia in as a dominant factor for emotional difficulties, we could not find an effect related to the parent-child interaction. In conclusion, what determines children’s emotional difficulties is the child’s alexithymia and not the parent-child interaction.



So far, our results show that alexithymia is a better predictor for emotional difficulties in the child-parent-co-regulation than autism. Parents of children who have difficulties understanding and communicating their emotions will have a harder time to understand their child’s emotions, regardless of autism or not.  Nonetheless, the parents’ reaction to the emotional difficulties of their autistic children remains important, as it can influence the child’s emotional reaction and development. The more a parent interacts with the child and models appropriate emotional reactions, the better the child’s emotional ability will be. In conclusion, parents play a vital role in the support of their children’s emotional development. For future interventions we recommend the improvement of the children’s emotional abilities, as well as an improvement of the parent-child interactions. Of most relevance, interventions should focus on addressing children’s alexithymia. Enhancing the parents understanding for their children’s emotion and teaching them effective communication strategies can better the emotional interaction.


For more information about this study, please contact us at