How to Reduce Behaviour Problems in Young Children - New Research
A University of Minnesota study published in Child Development suggests that the origins of behaviour problems in children may include negative parenting styles in early childhood. Headed by Dr Michael Lorber, now at New York University, the study found that ‘negative parenting’ in early infancy – expressing negative emotions, rough handling etc – predicted behaviour problems in children at a later age.
Negative Parenting Styles in Infancy Predict Conflict & Behaviour Problems
Before the study, the researchers predicted that a combination of a child’s ‘difficult’ temperament and a parent’s ‘negative’ parenting style would produce the highest risk of conflict during the toddler years. It was also predicted that temperament and parenting style would produce a higher risk for children’s behaviour problems at school age – but this was not the case. Dr Lorber said :
“We found no reliable associations between our infant difficulty measures and either mother-toddler conflict or ‘conduct problems’ (aggression, defiance, explosive behavior) at kindergarten and 1st grade”
But what the researchers did find, says Dr Lorber, was that “more negative infancy parenting, predicted more and increasing mother-toddler conflict, and conduct problems.”
How Was the Parenting and Behaviour Study Done?
The researchers looked at more than 260 mothers and their children, following them from the children’s birth until first grade. They assessed infants’ difficult temperament and how they were parented between the first week and the sixth month of life. When the children were 2 and a half and 3 years old, researchers watched mothers with children doing tasks that challenged the children and needed help from the parents. And when the children were in kindergarten and first grade, researchers asked mothers and teachers to rate the children’s behaviour problems.
Doesn’t the Behaviour of a Child Also Influence Parenting?
Dr Lorber points out that the study cannot rule out ‘genetic effects’ – and explained that “it is still possible that genes shared between moms and kids were responsible for moms' parenting and kids' later conduct problems."
The researchers watched mothers feeding their infants at 3 and 6 months old and measured 'expression of positive and negative regard' which reflect mothers’ displays of affection (e.g. cuddling and cooing) and negative emotions (e.g. anger, frustration, disgust) toward their child. They saw that mothers who parented their infants more negatively/less positively, rated their babies as more difficult. And Dr Lorber agrees that link “could reflect babies' reactions to the parenting they received.”
But the results clearly showed that conflict between mothers and their toddlers predicted later behaviour problems in the children - and not just high levels of conflict, but conflict that worsened over time. And ‘negative’ parenting resulted in children showing high levels of anger as toddlers, which in turn caused more hostility from the mothers.
Ideas for Parents from these Results
Although this study only observed mothers, it is possible, and perhaps likely, that the same results would be observed with any regular carer of a child. And parents should also remember that even when children experience ‘negative’ parenting in early childhood, there are still many ways for children’s behaviour and parents’ emotional wellbeing to be supported later on. But it is worthwhile thinking about what can be learned from this study, especially for early intervention programs.
Dr Lorber was asked about any ideas he could share for parents about ‘negative’ versus ‘positive' parenting in early childhood. He told happychild:
One Key Ingredient is Parent Sensitivity: this means “paying attention to the child's cues and responding appropriately”. Parents should try to be good observers and take the child's perspective to interpret how their child is behaving. A sensitive parent would then “pick a response that matches. For example, it's important to determine what level of stimulation your infant can handle, watch for signs of overstimulation, and if necessary, calm things down to more manageable levels of arousal.” Dr Lorber shared an example from an academic paper that explains sensitivity has four essential components:
(a) awareness of the signals;
(b) an accurate interpretation of them;
(c) an appropriate response to them; and
(d) a prompt response to them.
Limit Negative Parent Behaviour: Parents and carers should try to limit their own negative emotional behaviours when interacting with their children. Dr Lorber explained that “Children are sensitive, for example, to parental anger, disgust, and physically rough treatment. Most parents do at least some of these behaviors (they're human after all), however if it becomes a major part of one's parenting style (i.e. very frequent or intense), it may have a negative impact on one's children.“
Children Thrive on Positive Parental Behaviour: as Dr Lorber says, “smiling, laughter, and affection are all easy recommendations”. Parents should also remember that when babies grow into toddlers, it's normal for them to be more challenging (e.g. tantrums and hitting).
Clear & Reasonable Expectations: Sensitivity, low negativity, and high parental positivity are important, but Dr Lorber also points out that “most psychologists recommend clearly communicated, reasonable expectations as well as firm, gentle, and consistent discipline” (e.g. reprimands and mild consequences for misbehaviour, rewards for compliance, avoidance of yelling and hitting).
So even if a child is ‘tricky’ or ‘difficult’, parents can work towards raising children with less conflict and fewer behaviour problems by also observing their own parenting styles and using the simple guidelines of:
Sensitivity + Limit Negative Parent Behaviour + Increase Positive Parent Behaviour + Clear and Reasonable Expectations