• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Monday 09th March, 2009

Figuring the hardships of lone motherhood

Even very young children can become aggressive as the result of poor parenting by their mothers. In some cases, the ill-effects last right through childhood, , say Karen Benzies and colleagues at the University of Calgary in Canada. Most at risk are boys with several siblings who live with a single, poorly-educated mother.Benzies’s findings are based on analysis of nearly 1,000 children tracked from birth to the age of six by the Canadian National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth. The data were collected on each child when they were two, four and six-years-old through continuous contact with their mothers. The results show that hostile or ineffective parenting at the age of two or four had an immediate effect on the child’s behavior and that the effects were felt up to the age of six. Hostile or ineffective parenting is a term applied to situations where parents are frequently annoyed by their children’s disobedience, offer little praise and speak to them with high levels of disapproval. Hostile parents also get angry when punishing their children and the type of punishment fluctuates according to their changing moods, says Benzies.Where mothers in the Canadian survey used these inconsistent techniques, children were more likely to be physically aggressive. They were more likely to get into physical fights, to react angrily or to threaten and bully others. Benzies says that previous research indicated that the effects of poor parenting would be immediate, as did her own, but the indication of such long-term effects on behavior is surprising.The reasons are not investigated in this study, but Benzies says that they could be attributed to observational learning or to the indirect consequences of living in a negative emotional environment. Either way, she proposes that positive parenting interventions should be targeted towards the early years and continue at least until children reach school age. The Calgary team also suggest that high risk families will benefit the most from intervention. The strongest predictors of problems in later childhood to emerge from the study were single-parent status, low maternal education, multiple siblings and being a boy.Their research did not explore possible reasons but relied on earlier findings that lone mothers are the most stressed of all types of parent and that increasing levels of stress tend to be associated with a deterioration in parent-child interactions.The mother’s level of education was also a strong a predictor in this study. Specialists in child development often disagree on the importance of maternal education and the literature reflects their mixed findings. Benzies says that it might have been a factor in their analysis because less educated mothers were likely to be unemployed or in less well paid jobs – a circumstance that in turn increased family stress.Long term prospects for children who display aggressive behavior in their infancy are poor. They are at increased risk of future delinquency, criminality, psychiatric disorders and dropping out of school. Changing early parenting practices is likely to be the most efficient focus for prevention efforts, says Benzies. See: Benzies K, Keown L A, Magill-Evans J (2009) “Immediate and Sustained Effects of Parenting on Physical Aggression Canadian Children Aged 6 Years and Younger”, The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 54, 1, 55-64.

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