Environmental Risk Factors (page 2)
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.
Poverty and The Conditions Surrounding It
Poverty has an enormous impact on children’s lives and puts them at risk for challenging behavior even before they are born. More than 35 percent of children who live in poor families have seven or more risk factors—versus 7 percent of those who live in wealthy families (Sameroff and Fiese, 2000).
Good prenatal care is often not available to low-income families. One study found that in New York City’s poor health districts, for example, the infant mortality rate was as high as 43.5 per 1,000 live births, versus 6.6 per 1,000 live births in the city’s wealthier sections (Sampson, 1997). Babies in poor families also confront a higher risk of prematurity, low birthweight, and neurological damage (Sampson, 1997), all possible factors in challenging behavior.
Poverty brings a high level of stress to families’ lives—nonstop anxiety about food, housing, jobs, health care, safety and more. In high-poverty urban neighborhoods, families often have little or no social support, formal or informal. It is hard to make and keep friends when you’re living in a gigantic housing project, when people move all the time and you don’t know your neighbors, when one person carries the full responsibility for the family, when people are afraid to go to church, the local store, even to school. As a result, there is no one to keep an eye on anyone else’s children or property, it’s nearly impossible to supervise adolescents, and, as children grow, the neighborhood offers them little in the way of access to resources, health and recreational services, and mainstream role models and opportunities. This “social disorganization” (Sampson, 1997), as the sociologists call it, is becoming more and more common in U.S. inner cities (Garbarino, 1999).
About 27 percent of poor African American children and 20 percent of poor Latino American children live in the inner city, compared with 3 percent of poor European American children (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000). A family who belongs to a minority group faces the additional stress of racial discrimination, which damages self-esteem and provokes feelings of rage and shame (Garbarino, 1999).
All of this makes parenting extremely arduous. Whether or not they live in the inner city, stressed parents find it hard to attend to their children’s needs, and as a result they may be less apt to provide warmth, emotional support, stimulation, and supervision. They may depend instead on coercive parenting techniques, harsh discipline, punishment, and even physical abuse (Dodge, Pettit, and Bates, 1994; Fick, Osofsky, and Lewis, 1997), increasing their children’s risk of challenging behavior.
Please Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
A neighborhood can make a difference, especially for children at high risk.
Although research in this field is still far from conclusive, data from a few large-scale quasi-experimental studies in Chicago, Boston, and Baltimore suggest that moving from a high-poverty area to a low-poverty area can lower school dropout rates; increase college enrollment; decrease accidents, injuries, and asthma attacks; lower the rate of challenging behavior among school-age boys; and reduce the arrest rate for violent offenses among adolescents (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000).
Exposure to Violence
Violence is endemic in American life and culture. Children run into it everywhere—in the news, in games and sports, in adult conversation, in Saturday morning cartoons.
Children who encounter violence at close range find that it has a deep and powerful effect, even when they aren’t its direct victims (Jenkins and Bell, 1997). It “changes the way children view the world and may change the value they place on life itself,” according to Betsy Groves and Barry Zuckerman of the Boston Medical Center School of Medicine. “It affects their ability to learn, to establish relationships with others, and to cope with stress” (1997, p. 183).
In a study in Washington, DC, researchers Esther Jenkins and Carl Bell (1997) found that 31 percent of the fifth and sixth graders in their sample had witnessed a shooting, 17 percent had seen a stabbing, and the majority knew either the victim or the perpetrator. Even the very young are not exempt: 10 percent of the children under the age of 6 who visited a pediatric clinic at Boston City Hospital in 1991 reported witnessing a shooting or a stabbing (Groves and Zuckerman, 1997)
Children are all too aware of these events (Jaffe, Wolfe, and Wilson, 1990). Besides feeling frightened, vulnerable, anxious, depressed, and confused, some exhibit symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. They cling to their parents and teachers, and their eating, sleeping, and toileting may be disrupted. They have trouble paying attention, remembering things, and relating to others. They may have flashbacks where they replay the violent incident over and over in their minds; they may try to avoid thinking about it, experience emotional numbing, or become hyperalert. Many have trouble controlling their aggressive impulses (Jenkins and Bell, 1997; Osofsky, 1997). Parents, who have the most power to help, may also be traumatized and fail to recognize and respond to their children’s distress (Osofsky, 1997).
When violence takes place within the child’s family, it is even more devastating (Jenkins and Bell, 1997). Over 3 million children are at risk of witnessing physical assaults between their parents each year (National Center for Children Exposed to Violence, 2001). Even verbal conflict upsets children, and when it’s combined with physical conflict it contributes to both emotional problems and challenging behavior (Zeanah and Scheeringa, 1997; Yoshikawa, 1994). Psychologist Hirokazu Yoshikawa (1994) of New York University notes that conflict between parents has a greater negative influence on a child than the loss of a parent by death or divorce, and some studies consider it as harmful as physical abuse of the child (Widom, 1989).
Abuse and neglect are also shockingly common—nearly 3 million cases of child abuse and neglect were reported in the United States in 1998 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). Poor families are especially at risk (Bethea, 1999). Children who are abused are often insecurely attached to their caregivers (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000), with whom they are angry, frustrated, and noncompliant. They also behave aggressively with their peers, and instead of trying to comfort a friend in distress, they respond with fear, lash out with attacks and anger, or act totally unconcerned. They also have fewer words for their feelings (Coie and Dodge, 1998; Zeanah and Scheeringa, 1997).
In addition to their psychological injuries, children who are abused have physical injuries. In infants, abuse accounts for most of the head injuries, which are particularly dangerous. Shaking or hitting a child on the head is probably much more common than most people think because these injuries can’t be seen and the effects are often cumulative rather than immediate. Head injuries affect coping skills, judgment, self-control, empathy, social skills, and problem-solving skills (Raine, 1993), and research connects head injuries firmly to violent and aggressive behavior later on. Dramatically, one study of 15 young murderers on death row found that all of them had had severe head injuries (Raine, 1993).
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