Environmental Risk Factors
Family Factors and Parenting Style
Because parents play so vital a role in their children’s development, they are an easy target whenever challenging behavior appears on the scene. Parenting is difficult and complicated work that requires a vast amount of time and energy—items that are in short supply in young families. It is important for teachers to understand the parents’ role in challenging behavior, but it is equally important not to blame them. It is far better to become their partners.
Any life circumstance that hinders a parent’s well-being can put children at risk, including:
- A mother who had her first child when she was very young (Haapasalo and Tremblay, 1994)
- Parents with little education (Coie and Dodge, 1998)
- A parent with mental illness, especially a mother who’s depressed (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000)
- A parent who is abusing alcohol or drugs (Farrington, 1991)
- A parent with antisocial or criminal behavior (Farrington, 1991; Frick et al., 1991)
- A large number of children in the family (Farrington, 1991; Raine, 1993)
Indirectly, all these factors influence the parent-child relationship, the first line of defense against later aggressive behavior. According to attachment theory, first described by John Bowlby (1969/1982) and Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, and Wall, 1978), a secure attachment to a sensitive and responsive primary caregiver provides the foundation for a child’s emotional development, enabling her to learn to regulate and express her feelings, to cope with stress, and to see herself as an effective and loveable person. But when the primary caregiver is unavailable, unpredictable, insensitive, or rejecting, the child forms an insecure attachment; she doesn’t trust adults to care for her or help her organize her world, has difficulty regulating her emotions, and feels ineffectual and unworthy of love. Because the parent-child relationship acts as a prototype for the child’s future relationships (Bowlby, 1969/1982), children with an insecure attachment have trouble getting along with their peers and teachers, and their behavior is often challenging and aggressive (Greenberg, Speltz, and DeKlyen, 1993; Renken, Egeland, Marvinney, Mangelsdorf, and Sroufe, 1989).
Inappropriate parenting practices continue to increase the risk of challenging behavior as children grow older. When parents aren’t involved with their children, don’t respond warmly to them, and use harsh and inconsistent discipline, the children may react with defiant, aggressive, impulsive behaviors (Coie, 1996; Eron, Huesmann, and Zelli, 1991; Haapasalo and Tremblay, 1994). Poor supervision also has an impact (Raine, 1993).
Some families inadvertently teach their children to use aggression. Rather than clearly saying what they expect, they use inappropriate and ineffectual tactics, communicating their feelings of anger, impatience, and irritation, and they ignore or even punish their child’s prosocial behavior (Webster-Stratton, 1997). Gerald R. Patterson of the Oregon Social Learning Center has documented a cycle of interaction between parent and child that he calls “coercive” (1982, 1995). It can begin with a relatively trivial demand, such as a parent asking a child to do, or not do, something. The child ignores the request or refuses to comply. Then the parent responds more aggressively, scolding, nagging, or pleading; the child again refuses, whining or talking back. The exchanges escalate to yelling, threats, hitting, and temper tantrums, until the parent finally gives up and gives in—or explodes into violence—and then the child stops, too.
When the parents give in, which is most of the time, they are actually rewarding their child’s negative behavior and increasing the chances she’ll behave the same way again. At the same time, the child is reinforcing the parents by ceasing her own negative behavior (Coie and Dodge, 1998).
When the parents explode, they are modeling the use of aggression as a way to solve problems. The child may do as they ask, but she is more likely to feel hostility toward them and to become aggressive with both parents and peers in the future, especially if they don’t have a warm relationship (Coie and Dodge, 1998). Each time the parents use this method, it will be less effective, and they will probably use greater force, which may eventually lead to abuse (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1998). Whether they give in or resort to violence, the parents become demoralized and interact with their child less and less, missing opportunities to help her gain the emotional, social, and cognitive skills she needs to make friends and succeed at school.
It is important to remember, however, that parent-child interaction is definitely a two-way street. Every child is different, and so is every parent. The child’s temperament strongly influences the way the people in her life treat her and react to her. If she rarely smiles, if she whines when she talks, if she finds it hard to adapt to new foods, clothes, and people, her family will have a harder time figuring out how to make her happy and she will have a harder time engaging them in positive relationships (Webster-Stratton and Herbert, 1994). Each parent will respond according to his or her own temperament. If the fit between them isn’t a good one, poor parenting may be the result.
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