Child Temperament, Discipline and Behavior Problems

Title: Differential Susceptibility to Discipline: The Moderating Effect of Child Tempreament on the Association Between Maternal Discipline and Early Childhood Externalizing Problems

Authors: J. van Zeijl, J. Mesman, H. Koot, M. Stolk, L. Alink, M. Bakermans-Kranenburg, and F. Jeufer

Journal: Journal of Family Psychology/ American Psychological Association

Year: 2007

Volume: 21, No. 4

Summary of article: This article looks at the interaction between mother's discipline techniques and toddler temperament in a sample of one-to-three-year olds with high externalizing behavior. Externalizing behavior is acting-out behavior, such as hitting, kicking, biting, scratching, physically threatening, stamping, pushing etc. Both mothers and independent observers rated child's aggressive, externalizing behavior. This is important because mothers might be biased in their ratings of their child, due in part to past interactions with their child or their conceptualization of their child. Researchers explored how mother's discipline interacted with child's temperament to predict ratings of externalizing and aggressive behavior. This was based on the differential susceptibility hypothesis (Belsky, 1997) suggesting that environmental influences affect children  differently based on variables unique to the child (e.g. child temperament differentially interacts with parent discipline). What past research suggests is that children with difficult temperaments seem to be more susceptible to how their parents discipline than do children who have easy temperaments. Difficult temperament children with parents that use negative techniques show much more externalizing/aggressive behavior than do children with easy temperaments that experience the same parenting. These difficult temperament children also seem to be more affected by optimal parenting (i.e. positive discipline techniques). Difficult temperament in children is defined as children high on behaviors such as negative emotionality, low effortful control, inadaptability, persistence and negative mood. In this study, positive discipline strategies included 3 techniques: distraction, inductions and understanding. Whereas, negative discipline included prohibition, physical obstruction, and giving in. In this study, researchers found as expected that children high on difficult temperament were more greatly affected by the type of dicipline they were receiving than were children with easy temperaments. First, children with difficult temperaments displayed more behavior problems than their easy temperament peers. Second, mothers of difficult temperament children employed less positive disciple and more negative discipline than did the mothers of easy temperament children. When the interactions between positive discipline and temperament was looked at, children with difficult temperaments had higher externalizing behavior when their mothers used less positive discipline techniques and were rated as having less behavior problems when mother emplyed more positive discipline. Hardly any change in behavior problems was noted for children with easy temperamnet based on mothers use of positive discipline. For negative discipline, children with difficult temperaments had lower externalizing behavior ratings if less negative discipline was used and higher ratings of behavior problems if more negative discipline was used. When observer ratings of aggression were used instead of  mother ratings of externalizing behavior, temperament was still significant when predicting aggression but the associations were weaker. Mothers positive discipline and mothers negative discipline were not by themselves significant predictors of child aggression during the observed session. The interaction between positive discipline and temperament was significant such that children with difficult temperamnet displayed more aggression when mothers displayed less positive discipline. While these difficult temperament children showed less aggression when mother employed more positive discipline techniques in interaction. Children with easy temperaments did not display significantly more physical aggression depending on mothers positive discipline. When predicting physical aggression, the interaction between temperament and negative discipline was not significant.

What does this mean for parents: This study supports Belsky's (1997) differential susceptibility hypothesis. This hypotheis suggests that children's temperament interacts with parenting variables to determine a child's behavior. Thus, it is a dyadic interaction between child and mother that predicts child behavior. It is important to remember that unless a study is done over a length of time, order of events is impossible to determine. Additionally, even when studies of parenting are done over some time, order of events and contribution to events is difficult to disentangle because of the dyadic interactions that occur from birth and that each player brings with them. Thus, this study cannot speak to what leads to a difficult temperament child or what leads to a mother using less positive and more negative discipline tactics. What this study does speak to is that if you look at mothers ratings of child's behavior problems it does seem that child temperament, mother's discipline, and the interaction of the two variables contribute. The significant interactions suggest that children who have difficult temperament are more vulnerable to the type of discipline they are receiving. This study suggests that it is critical for mothers of children that have a difficult temperament and are displaying behavior problems to be aware of their parenting strategies because of the high impact these strategies appear to have  on their children. Mothers of children with difficult temperaments that are displaying behavior problems should attempt to increase their positive parenting strategies, such as distraction, induction, and understanding, in addition to decreasing their use of negative strategies, such as prohibition, physical obstruction and giving in. Interestingly, when outside observers rated children's aggression, mothers positive and negative discipline during the observation did not significantly predict child aggression. However, the interaction between mother's positive discipline and child's difficult temperament did make a difference. For children with difficult temperaments, their aggressive behavior in a situation went down whenmothers employed more positive discipline. For easy temperament children, this same relationship was not borne out. Mother's negative discipline techniques did not seem to have a different relationship depending on the temperament of the child. Again, it appears what can be taken from this study is that mothers who have children that have behavior problems, specifically aggression, need to concentrate on using positive parenting techniques to lower aggressive behavior. The positive and negative parenting strategies are described below.

Positive Discipline Techniques

Distraction-redirection of child's behavior by providing alternative behavior

Induction-mother gives explanation of why child should not engage in a behavior (e.g. discusses consequences)

Understanding- mother expresses understanding of child's feelings and/or thoughts

Negative Discipline Techniques

Prohibition-prohibition, command or disapproval of child's behavior.

Physical obstruction-mother physically obstructs child from engaging in a behavior

Giving in-mother's giving in and allowing,either actively or passively, the child to engage in a prohibited behavior

Belsky, J. (1997). Variation in susceptability to environmental influence: An evolutionary argument. Psychological Inquiry, 8, 182-186.


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