• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Thursday 03rd January, 2013

An executive decision

strong>Programs for the parents of poorly behaved children could be strengthened if they targeted not only parenting skills but also some of the most fundamental aspects of parents’ brain functioning, such as memory, attention, and self-control. This bundle of mental abilities – collectively known as “executive function” – may help to break the coercive parenting cycle. Harsh parenting behavior and child conduct problems often go together as children and parents bring out the worst in each other. New research suggests that strong executive function can help to stop this spiral by helping parents to reduce the harshness of their reactions to angry, defiant child behavior. But good executive function is no cure-all when families live in chaotic environments. In the midst of household chaos, even those mothers with strong memory, attention, and self-control were less likely to be able to break the link between harsh parenting and child behavior problems. Perhaps the “stress, fatigue and uncertainty of chaotic environments… interfered with the self-regulating effects of executive function for parents of young children with challenging behaviors,” the researchers said.The role of executive functionEvidence linking harsh parenting and bad child behavior is unequivocal; angry, hostile and aggressive parenting often goes hand in hand with aggressive and oppositional behavior in children and young people. So where does executive function figure, and why might executive function interrupt the link between harsh parenting and challenging child behavior, as this new research suggests? Parenting experts agree that regulating feelings of frustration and anger is an important skill for parents who find themselves confronted by challenging child behavior. Those who have poor self-regulation (one key dimension of executive functioning) are more likely to respond with anger and hostility to child conduct problems – thereby perpetuating the bad behavior. In explaining where executive function fits into this well-known cycle, researchers from Virginia Tech University suggest that rather than reacting with anger to challenging behavior, parents with high levels of executive functioning are better able to regulate “thoughts and emotions through reflection and consideration of potential responses” and respond in a more positive and structured way.The team, led by psychologist Kirby Deater-Deckard, found that “harsh parenting was linked with child conduct problems only among mothers with poorer executive function” – but they go on to say, “This effect was particularly strong in calm, predictable environments, but was not evident in chaotic environments.”The complication caused by chaosHigh executive functioning, while helpful in some contexts, is by no means a panacea, the study reports. The positive effects of high executive functioning were not strong enough to protect children against harsh parenting when they lived in highly chaotic households. By “chaotic,” the researchers were referring to homes that are extremely noisy and crowded and that also lack structure and routine. It seems that under these circumstances the benefits of high executive function are “overridden by the prevailing chaos of the household environment.” It seems that chronic chaos, which often leads to chronic stress, may make it very difficult for parents to draw on their self-control skills. Opportunities for prevention and interventionThe study was conducted with 147 mothers of children aged three to seven years. The mothers completed a collection of self-report questionnaires that tapped into their parenting styles, household conditions, and their perceptions of their child’s behavior problems. Their executive functioning was measured through a selection of computerized memory, attention, and problem-solving tasks. Although more research is needed to replicate the findings from this study among a larger numbers of families, there are several implications for prevention and intervention, Deater-Deckard and his colleagues argue.First, executive function can be improved. “Although self-regulation processes may seem immutable, they are amenable to change through regular training. Because all caregiving situations are unpredictable at times, parental executive function may be a powerful mechanism for enhancing parenting interventions,” they say.However, more studies are needed on this point. While research shows that some aspects of executive function can be improved through intervention, there have been no studies conducted to examine specifically whether training to improve attention and working memory can improve parents’ regulation of negative emotional reactions to challenging child behavior.Second, it would be feasible for interventions to target executive function. “Because self-monitoring is critical to effective self-regulation of emotions, thoughts and behaviors, executive function may be a useful target for parenting prevention and intervention efforts because it is something that is relatively easy for parents to understand and experience.”Finally, as this research highlights, targeting executive function may not help families living in households characterized by chaos. As the authors conclude, “Targeting household regulation is as important as targeting self-regulation when intervening to strengthen parenting skills and improve children’s developmental outcomes.”*********Reference:Deater-Deckard, K., Wang, Z., Chen, N., & Bell, M.A. (2012). Maternal executive function, harsh parenting and child conduct problems. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2012.02582.x

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