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In general, the levels of behavioral problems in this sample were relatively low. Boys showed more behavioral problems than girls, both as reported by parents and observed in the laboratory.
Children were divided into those with and without behavioral problems at four years. Eight children (seven of them boys) had behavioral problems by observation at four years, and 21 (16 of them boys) showed behavioral problems by parent report. Because there were so few girls who showed behavioral problems by parent-report and observation, it was not possible to analyze by sex, and the results for the entire sample are described here. However, from inspection of the data it appears that somewhat different patterns might emerge for girls if a large enough group was analyzed.
The main questions of interest were: for each type of child temperament, did the type of parenting style at two years differ for those with and without behavioral problems at four years? In particular, we were interested in the impact of parenting on those with temperament characteristics (high reactivity and very low inhibition) which might predispose them to the development of problems. Children were therefore divided into groups on the basis of their temperament scores when observed at two years (no or some negative reactivity, and low, moderate or high inhibition). There were 74 children (44 boys, 30 girls) showing some negative reactivity in the observation session with their parents at two years. Thirty-eight children (22 boys, 16 girls) were highly inhibited in the parent-child observation session at two years. Thus there were more highly reactive boys than girls and slightly more inhibited boys than girls.
The average levels of each parenting style in the parent-child laboratory session were then examined for each of the sub-groups formed. The findings are presented in Figures 2-5. Note that the bars indicate levels of parenting, not numbers of children; the numbers of children are indicated by the numbers inside the bars. Results for behavioral problems as assessed by questionnaire and observation were often similar, so graphs of only one method of assessment are presented here for each combination of parenting and temperament.
Warmth and reactivity: Six of the eight children who were observed to have behavioral problems by four years were reactive, and these children received much lower warmth at two years than the other 64 reactive children, and the 35 non-reactive children without behavioral problems. However, it is also notable that only two non-reactive children developed behavioral problems but these had high levels of parental warmth. Thus, for reactive children only, lower levels of parental warmth at two years predict later behavioral problems.
Punishment and reactivity: The six reactive children who were later observed to have behavioral problems had experienced more punishment than the 64 other reactive children without such problems, and the 35 non-reactive children without behavioral problems. Again, the two non-reactive children who developed behavioral problems were receiving low levels of punishment at two years. However, in general these results show that the combination of reactivity and high levels of punishment at two years was the most common precursor to behavioral problems at four years.
Inductive reasoning and reactivity: Of the 21 children who had parent-reported behavioral problems at four years, 19 were highly reactive at two years and had experienced lower levels of inductive reasoning than the other 55 reactive children without behavioral problems and the 35 non-reactive children without problems (Figure 4). Again, the two non-reactive children who developed behavioral problems showed a different pattern, with high levels of inductive reasoning. With these exceptions, the most common pattern for children whose parents reported behavioral problems at four years of age was for them to be reactive and to receive lower levels of inductive reasoning as toddlers.
Punishment and inhibition: Figure 5 shows that six of the 21 children with parent-rated behavioral problems at four years were low on inhibition (highly uninhibited or outgoing), and they received more punishment in the parent-child session than the other 32 low-inhibited children who did not develop behavioral problems. The other 15 children with four-year-old parent-rated behavioral problems did not differ from their non-behavioral problems counterparts in the levels of punishment. These results show that for uninhibited toddlers, higher levels of punishment at two years appear to contribute to later behavioral problems. However, levels of punishment did not appear to have different effects for children who were moderate or high on inhibition. A similar pattern was found for observed behavioral problems.
Implications for parenting education
A highly outgoing child who experiences high parental punishment appears more likely than other children to develop behavioral problems. But if the same highly outgoing child receives parenting which channels the child's energy and exuberance in positive ways, the child is likely to be well-adjusted. A more inhibited child is unlikely to develop "acting-out" behavioral problems of the sort assessed here, irrespective of parenting, although this study and others (Rubin et al. 2001) suggest that they can be susceptible to social withdrawal and later anxiety and fearfulness, given exposure to particular parenting styles such as overprotectiveness.
Of course, a highly sociable (possibly risk-taking) child and a highly reactive, intense, and irritable child are more demanding to parent, and may elicit exactly the sort of parenting that appears worst for them. Patterson et al. (1989) have argued that children with particular temperamental traits are more likely to have parents who use high levels of punishment, and have shown that the parent-child interactions in such cases often develop into "coercive cycles" of mutually antagonistic behavior, with the longer-term result that children develop aggressive behavior (Patterson et al. 1989). Similarly, Scarr and McCartney (1984) have postulated "evocative" gene-environment interactions, where temperamental traits (which are partly genetically determined) elicit a particular style of parenting, which then results in particular outcomes.
A major implication of these findings is that parents need help in understanding the unique nature of their child, and in finding appropriate ways of parenting that child. It should be noted that the majority of children in the present study, whatever their temperament (high or low reactivity, high or low inhibition), did not have behavioral problems. Therefore it is inappropriate to regard high reactivity and uninhibited styles as necessarily "difficult" traits - the challenge is to find the best fit between these traits and parenting style. Levels of child negative reactivity observed in the laboratory were also relatively low, which is not surprising for this sample.
It should also be noted that most children in this study had experienced fairly positive parenting. This means that we do not know whether the pattern of results found here would hold for very high negative reactivity and high levels of parental punishment. But the detailed observational data reveals that relatively small differences in the levels of warmth, punishment and inductive reasoning have a significant impact for children who are tempera-mentally at risk. The implication remains that "recipe book" approaches in parenting programs, promoting "the right way" to parent, may miss the mark for many children, and parents need to be given the confidence and the skills to adapt their parenting as appropriate.
Reflection Exercise #7