Does the way mothers think about their difficult children matter?

Early findings have shown that the mothers of badly behaved young children think about their child’s behaviour in a characteristic way, tending to believe that their bad behaviour is intentional and has to do with the nature of the child rather than the child’s circumstances. This has led some to propose that the way such mothers think about their children’s behaviour may actually be contributing to the children’s conduct problems.

To test this idea Charlotte Wilson and colleagues recruited 80 mothers whose three-year-old children had been identified by community nurses as being particularly naughty and oppositional.

Consistent with past research, the researchers found that the mothers of the worst-behaved children (in terms of temper tantrums and disobedience) had more negative thoughts about their child’s behaviour – they tended to think their children behaved badly on purpose and would do so regardless of the circumstances.

But crucially, when the researchers followed the mothers up a year later, they found it was children’s behaviour that seemed to be affecting their mothers’ thoughts, rather than the other way around. That is, mothers with more difficult children at the first testing point were more likely to have developed negative thoughts about their child’s behaviour a year later. In contrast, children at age three whose mothers had more negative thoughts, tended not to have became more poorly behaved a year later.

The researchers said “…it is becoming clearer that early hard-to-manage behaviour in children has an impact on maternal thoughts and beliefs. In contrast, this study throws further doubt on the hypothesis that parental attributions have a direct effect on children’s conduct problems”.
Wilson, C., Gardner, F., Burton, J. & Leung, S. (2006). Maternal attributions and young children’s conduct problems: A longitudinal study. Infant and Child Development, 15, 109-121.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.