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).

Turbulent Times

Violence in the lives of children takes on a new meaning during a national crisis. On September 11, 2001, life in the United States changed forever. The extraordinary events of that day and the days that followed shattered everyone’s sense of safety and security. Glued to their television sets, people watched time and time again two hijacked planes crash into the World Trade Center in New York. Young children, with their limited understanding of the world, believed that each replay was a different event, a different plane, and yet another building. Some felt as if there were no safe place left on earth. If their parents worked in tall buildings or traveled in planes, they worried that they would never see them again.

Catastrophic events such as terrorist attacks, hurricanes, and earthquakes create a sense of helplessness and make everyone feel frightened, especially when they happen close to home. Children are particularly vulnerable, because they depend on the adults around them to make them feel safe. Their ability to recover is intimately connected to the ability of their families and teachers to comfort and reassure them.

Each child responds differently to an event like September 11 or Hurricane Katrina. Some react right away; others take weeks to show their fear, anger, and sadness; some bounce back relatively quickly; others may experience problems over a long period. Several factors influence a child’s reaction: her age (both chronological and developmental), her temperament, her family’s response to the event, and how physically and emotionally close she is to the disaster. Children who’ve lost a friend or relative or witnessed the event in person will be the hardest hit (Greenman, 2001). Boys take longer to recover and are more prone to act aggressively; girls express their feelings in words and ask more questions (American Academy of Pediatrics, n.d.).

Children age 5 and under may express their anxiety by crying, whining, throwing tantrums, or becoming afraid of strangers. They may also be more frightened of the world and new situations, cling to their parents and/or favorite objects, and become afraid to leave home. They may have difficulty sleeping and regress to behaviors that they used when they were younger. School-age children may also experience these symptoms, and their behavior may be aggressive or disruptive; they may get angrier and more combative; they may be irritable and have trouble paying attention. Or they may withdraw and become depressed, anxious, or numb (National Institute of Mental Health, 2001b).

Extremely sensitive children and those already struggling with stress will have a particularly hard time. Children who’ve experienced previous losses, children whose families are too upset and fearful to provide the reassurance they need, and children who were barely coping in the period before the disaster may be overwhelmed. Children whose behavior was already out of control may deteriorate further. Children who are surrounded by angry people looking for revenge may respond with anger that comes to the fore in their interactions with their peers. In all of these cases, challenging behavior is often the result.

Violent Media

Some experts believe that when it comes to violence, the media exert as much influence as family and peers (Levin, 1998; Slaby, 1997). Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold provide vivid anecdotal evidence for this opinion: The teenagers who killed 13 students and teachers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999 played the video game Doom obsessively (Bai, 1999).

Children spend an average of 35 hours a week in front of the television—more time than they spend doing anything but sleeping (Levin, 1998). One-year-olds watch an average of 2.2 hours a day (Christakis, Zimmerman, DiGiuseppe, and McCarty, 2004), and 26 percent of children under 2 years have a television set in their bedroom (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2003). African American children watch more than European American children, and children in poor families watch more than children in affluent families (Slaby, 1997).

In 1972, the Surgeon General’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior concluded that there is a direct, causal link between seeing violence on television and aggressive behavior. In 2000, six major professional societies—including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychiatric Association—officially concurred, saying that “the data point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children” (“Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children,” 2000). Meta-reviews of the most rigorous studies indicate that the effects of television violence are very strong (Coie and Dodge, 1998).

Children are the most susceptible viewers because they are the least able to evaluate what they see (Slaby, 1997). Researchers (Coie and Dodge, 1998; Donnerstein, Slaby, and Eron, 1994; Slaby, 1997) have documented at least four main effects:

  • Aggressor effect. Children who watch violent media are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior, especially if they identify with aggressive characters or find the violence realistic and relevant to their own lives. They may come to think that aggression is an acceptable way to resolve conflict. The more violence a child watches, the more aggressive the child’s behavior is likely to become.
  • Victim effect. Watching television violence makes some children more fearful. Most vulnerable are those who identify with the victim and perceive the violence as realistic. Heavy viewers of violence can acquire “mean-world syndrome,” mistrusting people and seeing the world as more dangerous than it really is.
  • Bystander effect. Watching media violence desensitizes children and leads them to think that violence is normal, especially when programs present it as acceptable and without consequences. Instead of responding to real-life pain and suffering with sympathy, child viewers of violence remain indifferent. In one experiment, children who had watched a violent program were far less likely to intervene or call for help when fighting broke out among the children they were “babysitting” (Thomas and Drabman, 1975).
  • Increased appetite effect. When television violence is fun and exciting, children crave more of it. Children who behave aggressively watch more violent television in order to justify their behavior.

Research is also uncovering evidence that watching television at a very young age is associated with attentional and organizational problems and impulsive behavior at age 7. One study found that a child’s risk of attention problems rose by nearly 10 percent for each hour of television she watched per day (Christakis et al., 2004). Another study (Zimmerman, Glew, Christakis, and Katon, 2005) links bullying in school-age children to early television viewing. Prosocial television has prosocial effects, but there is relatively little of it to be seen (Donnerstein et al., 1994; Murray, 1997).

Whether violence enters their lives via their own families, their peers, their neighbors, or the media, children who are exposed to it are learning that it is an acceptable—and effective—way to resolve conflict and gain power. They become readier to accept aggressive behavior both in themselves and in others, and they are at high risk for criminal behavior and for aggressive behavior in their own dating and marital relationships (Suderman and Jaffe, 1997).

Child Care

Children don’t choose to attend child care; they have to go. For many hours a week, they have very little control over their own lives. Their individual needs often take a backseat to the needs of the group and the teachers (children may nap so that teachers can have a lunch break, for example). Children who are inflexible or easily frustrated and children who are very active or very timid find this extremely hard, and it’s harder when they spend the entire day there. Challenging behavior is their way of letting us know what they feel.

Research has shown that stimulating and emotionally supportive care is associated with positive developmental outcomes for children. But a longitudinal study of about 1,000 children by the Early Child Care Research Network of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) (2003) has found a link between the number of hours that 4 1/2-year-olds and kindergarteners spend in child care and their social competence and problem behavior. As the children’s time in child care increased, so did their problem behavior and aggression. The study takes into account the quality of care, along with the child’s gender and temperament; the mother’s education and sensitivity; and the family’s income and ethnicity.

These results are disturbing, and it’s tempting to discount them. After all, the overwhelming majority of children did not score in the at-risk range; and other studies have shown that quality of care does make a difference in children’s problem behavior, particularly in children from low-income families (Love et al., 2003). But it’s important to take this research seriously. It is a rigorous study, the largest of its kind ever conducted, and the researchers are respected experts. Because it seems to show that time spent in child care affects problem behavior even when quality is high, it suggests that trained, qualified, and experienced teachers working in high-quality centers don’t necessarily have the skills that are required to work effectively with children with challenging behavior.

A nationwide study of state-funded prekindergarten programs seems to confirm this view. Yale University researcher Walter S. Gilliam (2005) found that programs were expelling preschoolers “due to behavior concerns” at more than three times the rate that schools were ousting children in kindergarten through grade 12. Boys were thrown out more than four times as often as girls, and African American preschoolers were about twice as likely to be expelled as European American and Latino children. But, Gilliam discovered, the more access teachers had to the help of a mental health professional, the less likely they were to eject a child; and he recommended that they receive enhanced support and better training in addressing problem behavior.

Understanding risk

This article presents a long list of risk factors, and after reading it you might feel that it’s a miracle if any child manages to emerge from early childhood without challenging behavior. But remember that these risks have a cumulative effect. Each one you can counteract or help a child to avoid will make a substantial difference in her ability to cope. The simple fact that you understand more about who she is should increase your empathy and enhance the quality of your relationship—and the strength of your influence.