Life at home key in determining child's drive for success, study shows

July 02, 2001

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Persist, adapt to challenges, succeed. Why does such tenacity work for one child but not another? A new study suggests that life at home - family stability, parenting styles and stressful experiences - drives how a child behaves and pursues success in academics and relationships. University of Illinois researchers studied two groups of Midwest fifth- and sixth-graders - 1,058 students in all - gathering information from the children and their teachers about the children's academic work, peer relationships and home life.

The study, in the August issue of Cognitive Therapy and Research, sheds light on life experiences that promote self control or may precede helplessness and emotional disorders. Among the findings: • Loss of a parent due to death, divorce or abandonment affects a child's feeling of mastery.

"Kids with these experiences had decreased perceptions of control over their academic performance and relationships with their parents," said Karen D. Rudolph, a professor of psychology. "They also showed more academic and helpless behavior in academic and social situations."

• When parental fights are related to the children, or when children blame themselves for the conflict, children display lower perceptions of control in academics and in both peer and parent-child relationships. Teachers also reported more helpless behavior in the classroom by affected children.

• Children whose parents promote original thinking and independence have stronger feelings of control. There are subtle differences, however. When kids perceive that mothers grant more autonomy and are less rejecting, they have a greater sense of control over academics and friendships. When dads are stronger in these areas, kids feel they have more control in parent-child relationships.

• Stress - at school, with peers or with parents - had specific effects related to a child's perception of mastery. If related to academics, for example, the stress led to students feeling they had less control over doing well on homework.

"Adolescence is a period when children are just starting to form a more stable sense of themselves," Rudolph said. "It is a time for changes and shifts. We know a lot about the consequences of a child's beliefs about control and mastery-oriented behavior. We know much less about how these beliefs develop. This is an important issue if your goal is to prevent depression or other emotional disorders. "Disruptive experiences within the family have a significant effect on children's orientation toward challenges, but other experiences at school, with friends, and with parents can further modify these patterns of beliefs and behavior," she said.
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Co-authors of the study were Rudolph and psychology graduate students Kathryn D. Kurlakowsky and Colleen S. Conley. The UI Research Board Beckman Award, a William T. Grant Foundation Faculty Scholars Award, and a grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health funded the project.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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