Effects of early maternal distress and parenting on the development of children’s self-regulation and externalizing behavior
Emotional distress experienced by mothers increases young children’s risk of externalizing problems through suboptimal parenting and child self-regulation. An integrative structural equation model tested hypotheses that mothers’ parenting (i.e., low levels of inductive discipline and maternal warmth) would mediate adverse effects of early maternal distress on child effortful control (i.e., the ability to voluntarily inhibit impulses and control attention), which in turn would mediate effects of maternal parenting on child externalizing behavior. This longitudinal study spanning ages 3, 6, and 10 included 241 children, mothers, and a subset of teachers. The hypothesized model was partially supported. Elevated maternal distress was associated with less inductive discipline and maternal warmth, which in turn were associated with less effortful control at age 3 but not at age 6. Inductive discipline and maternal warmth mediated adverse effects of maternal distress on children’s effortful control. Less effortful control at ages 3 and 6 predicted smaller relative decreases in externalizing behavior at 6 and 10, respectively. Effortful control mediated effects of inductive discipline, but not maternal warmth, on externalizing behavior. Findings suggest elevated maternal distress increases children’s risk of externalizing problems by compromising early parenting and child self-regulation.
This study shows that mothers’ emotional distress influences children’s development of behavior problems by compromising the quality of parental caregiving and hindering growth in children’s self-regulation skills, which may prolong their difficulties managing attention, impulses, and emotions. High maternal distress is associated with low levels of maternal warmth, inductive reasoning and reminding of rules with preschool-age children, which in turn predicts low levels of children’s self-control in kindergarten. Low self-control in preschool and kindergarten predict smaller decreases in the frequency of children’s behavior problems from early to middle childhood. Most families in this study are White, middle-class, and residing by a relatively safe and affluent college town in the Midwest. This suggests that even mild symptoms of depression and anxiety can disrupt mothers’ positive parenting skills leading to children’s prolonged difficulties with self-control and behavior problems, such as aggression and hyperactivity.