Family Factors and Parenting Style (page 3)
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—which are in short supply in many 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)
- Four or more 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, Waaters, 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, cope with stress, and see herself as an effective and lovable person. But when the primary caregiver is unavailable, unpredictable, insensitive, or rejecting, the child forms an insecure attachment; and 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 at school, 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, don't supervise them properly, 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; Raine, 1993; Statistics Canada, 2005).
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 and 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 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 hostile 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. To avoid unpleasantness, they 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. They don't keep close track of her activities and whereabouts in elementary school; and as she moves on to middle school, they often don't know her friends, set or enforce a curfew, or pay attention to her academic performance. This abdication of vital parental functions may drive the child toward more deviant peers (Dodge and Pettit, 2003; Tolan, Gorman-Smith, and Henry, 2003).
Children who live in families where this coercive cycle is the norm arrive in school with well-polished antisocial behavior. Because they challenge the teacher and don't follow instructions, it's difficult for them to establish good relationships and learn basic skills, such as reading (Biglan, Brennan, Foster, and Holder, 2004).
It is important to remember, however, that parent-child interaction is a two-way street. The child's temperament strongly influences the way the people in her life react to her, and each parent responds 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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