Negative Mothering Breeds Defiance Into School Years

April 06, 1999

Adolescent mothers who are depressed and anxious and use negative control tactics such as yelling, insulting, threatening, and spanking their children are likely to find those children continuing their defiant behaviors beyond their pre-school years and into school, researchers are learning.

Disruptive behaviors can be expected in toddlers and preschoolers, but about half of all preschoolers with high levels of disruptive, defiant behavior problems carry them over into their school years and beyond, where they become far more problematic.

To learn why some children continue on disruptive, oppositional "trajectories" and others do not, a team of child specialists headed by Susan J. Spieker, Ph.D., of the University of Washington, followed for two and a half years 183 high-risk preschool children born to adolescent mothers. They looked at many factors but focused particularly on depression and anxiety in the mothers and their use of negative control tactics.

Their research, reported in the March issue of Child Development, shows associations between anxiety and depression in adolescent mothers and their use of negative control tactics, and further links between those behaviors and disruptive defiance by their children.

"By the end of the preschool years most of the mother-child pairs with high negative control are probably involved in coercive power struggles," says Spieker. "The extent to which child behavior is 'driving' this process would not change this conclusion."

Children of more depressed or anxious mothers showed higher levels of disruptive behavior, the scientists found. Greater amounts of negative control corresponded with higher levels of behavior problems, with no reduction over time.

Even in this high-risk sample of children, the disruptive behavior problems on average declined gradually between ages 3.5 and six, as they have been found to do in all preschoolers. But children whose mothers reported frequent yelling, threatening, and spanking of their children during conflict did not see a decrease over time, as had been expected.

At age six the level of disruptive behavior reported by the mothers who used negative control was much higher than established norms, the children exceeding the clinical cutoff point set for average prevalence of disruptive behavior at more than twice the normal rate. Overall, boys exhibited higher disruptive behavior levels than girls.

The scientists found a weaker association between negative control and disruptive behavior problems for African American than for white mothers, perhaps because African American mothers employ more positive warmth and less irritability with their negative control tactics, the scientists theorize.

The research was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
Child Development is the bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Research in Child Development. For information about the journal, please contact Jonathan J. Aiken, 734-998-7310.

Posted by the Center for the Advcancement of Health For information about the Center, contact Petrina Chong, 202-387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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