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Children Adjust Poorly When Parents Cannot Handle Normal Misbehavior

Children Adjust Poorly When Parents Cannot Handle Normal Misbehavior

New research from The University of Texas at Austin shows that children adjust more poorly when parents react negatively in direct response to their child's crying, fussing and other aversive behavior than if the parent is negative in general. Children who routinely experience negative backlash from a parent are also less successful at navigating social situations.

"A child's adjustment seems to depend on precisely how and when a parent is negative," says Associate Professor of human development and family science Ted Dix. "Children living with aversion-sensitive mothers might not be getting the information that they need about social behavior to adjust well."

The study, published online this month in the Journal of Family Psychology, is the first direct test of the 'aversion sensitivity hypothesis'. Aversion-sensitivity means that a parent is particularly likely to respond negatively to aversive child behaviors—things like clinging, resisting direction and whining. These parental reactions can be emotionally charged from the child's side—who can respond with negative emotions of their own.

"Overall general negativity is not problematic to a child because expressing negative emotion is a normal part of parent-child relationships, especially during childhood. Expressing negative emotions to children can, in fact, promote adaptive development by teaching, correcting, and socializing the child," says lead author and graduate student, Anat Moed, of the Department of Human Development and Family Science. "We looked at a particular type of expressions of negative emotion, one in which children's aversive behaviors were immediately followed with expressed negative emotion from the mother, and found that this specific pattern predicts poor development in the child."

Moed further explains that when parents express negative emotion over something the child did that interfered with the parent's immediate goals or interest, like cooking, talking on the phone, or shopping, it can have some short-term benefit of stopping the problem behavior, but it fails to support the child's needs and interest. This, she says, is why aversion sensitivity increases children's adjustment problems.

The new study looked at 284 mother-child pairs; the mothers were divorced and the children ranged from four to eleven years.The researchers observed the parents and their children at routine intervals after the divorce over a period of two years.

The results show that a mother's overall rate of expressing negative emotions is not related to poor child adjustment; high rates of a mother's negativity during a period of high stress do not impact a child's adjustment.

But when mothers lash out in response to a child's aversive behavior, the 'aversion–focused negativity' predicts outcomes. The more aversion-focused mothers were, the more behavior problems their children seemed to have, and the worse their social competence and emotion regulation.

"There are many reasons why a parent has increased sensitivity to child aversive behaviors, like stress, depression, genetics, and even having a very difficult child," says Moed. "But the more that parenting revolves around a mother's minimizing her own distress rather than focusing on supporting, teaching, and socializing the child, the more difficult it is for children to learn social norms and adaptive forms of emotional behaviors, and, as a result, to adjust well to other social environments."

This paper was based on data collected by coauthors Edward Anderson, associate professor of human development and family sciences at UT Austin, and Shannon Greene of the Population Research Center, UT Austin.
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Saturday, 04 February 2023

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