Fall 2018 Newsletter

A mother's emotional and cognitive control influences her child's behavior, study co-authored by Kirby Deater-Deckard

A new study by Kirby Deater-Deckard, professor in developmental science, and co-authors from Brigham Young University, Johns Hopkins University, and Virginia Tech, discusses how a mother's emotional and cognitive control can influence her child's behavior. 

The study, published in the journal Family Relations, found that stronger maternal emotion control resulted in less harsh verbal parenting and lower hostile attribution bias, a tendency to judge others' behaviors as threatening, even when the intention of the behavior is uncertain or open to interpretation. The study also concluded that higher maternal executive functioning or cognitive control, led to less controlling parenting attitudes. Both harsh verbal parenting and controlling parenting attitudes are strongly associated with child conduct problems such as tantrums or fighting.

The researchers collected data from 152 mothers that had children between 3 and 7 years of age. The mothers ranged from 21 to 49 years old; 62 percent were married and nearly one-third had not earned more than a high school diploma.

A 10-item questionnaire was used to measure maternal emotion control, including items that asked subjects to judge how often they “have angry outbursts” or “overreact to small problems.” Executive function was measured through a series of tasks that tested the mother's attention, inhibition, and memory. Our ability to organize and plan our daily activities, stay focused on important tasks, and problem-solve new dilemmas are all part of executive function. 

Finally, the researchers asked questions about the subject's parenting attitudes, which showed how traditional or modern their beliefs were. They recorded levels of harsh verbal parenting, and the amount of conduct problems their children show.

Deater-Deckard explains, "This study demonstrates the importance of our control of our own thoughts, emotions and behaviors in our role as a parent. Our findings fit into a larger body of research showing that a parent will benefit from nurturing their own internal resources of “self control” of their emotions and behaviors. There are some clear “signals” that our supply of self control is being run down – for example, when we are feeling distracted, irritable, and tired. Parents can practice recognizing these signals in themselves when they are occurring, and respond by taking a ‘time out’ (even just a short one) if at all possible -- just as we might do with our child when we notice these signals in them."

"In the bigger picture, parents also can benefit by building routines around healthier eating, movement or exercise, and sleep. These help maintain our self control resource. It is not easy; it takes practice and effort. But even small improvements can be helpful."  

Read the full study details from the journal Family Relations

Family Relations 67 (July 2018): 339–353 DOI:10.1111/fare.12318