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During toddlerhood, children often become increasingly disruptive by showing higher rates of oppositional behavior and less compliance to parental requests. If this disruptive behavior persists, it can put children at risk for more serious forms of antisocial behavior in middle childhood and adolescence (Tremblay, 2000). Disruptive child behavior is often exacerbated and maintained by negative and inconsistent parenting behavior that unwittingly reinforces disruptive behavior (Patterson, 1982). One explanation for why parents find it difficult to remain positive and consistent might be the impact of early disruptive behavior on parent levels of self-efficacy and stress, which might in turn affect their use of positive parenting strategies. However, to date most studies linking child and parental behaviors rely on correlational designs detached from actual parenting situations, which prohibit drawing causal inferences about effects of disruptive child behavior on parenting. This study used an experimental design to investigate how disruptive child behavior in a challenging parenting situation might shape parental thoughts of self-efficacy, perceived stress, and physiological arousal, and how these in turn predict parenting behavior.
We experimentally manipulated a challenging parenting situation, which was designed to elicit disruptive child behavior, and examined (1) effects on parental state self-efficacy and stress, (2) whether parents with lower trait self-efficacy and higher trait stress in daily life are most affected, and (3) how parental reactivity predicts subsequent parental use of direct commands and positive affect. Parent-toddler-dyads were randomly assigned to a challenging or control situation (N=110, Mage=30.9 months). Parents in both conditions reported on their levels of self-efficacy and perceived stress during the challenging or control situation; parents’ skin conductance levels assessed their physiological arousal. In a subsequent parenting task, we observed parents’ use of direct commands and positive affect. Prior to the lab experiment, parents reported on their trait levels of self-efficacy and stress in daily life, and parents’ skin conductance levels during resting states assessed trait levels of baseline arousal.
As predicted, parents in the challenging situation, relative to control, reported less self-efficacy (Cohen’s d=0.78) and more perceived stress (d=0.84), and showed increased physiological arousal (d=0.59, see Figure 1). Self-efficacy was compromised particularly in parents with low trait self-efficacy (b=0.40, p=.009, η2=.065, see Figure 2). However, parents with high trait stress (i.e., perceived trait stress and baseline arousal in daily life) did not show stronger negative stress reactions to the challenging situation. Furthermore, parental perceived and physiological stress reactions to disruptive child behavior did not predict parental use of direct commands or positive affect (see Figure 1). Our findings suggest that child disruptive behavior drives parental self-efficacy and stress, especially self-efficacy in parents who feel less self-efficacious in daily life. Addressing parental thoughts of self-efficacy in response to challenging situations may help parents to maintain positive parent-child interactions, potentially reducing the risk of negative cycles of interaction and higher rates of disruptive behavior among young children.