Abstract: Harsh Parenting and Emotion Regulation Across Infancy (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

Harsh Parenting and Emotion Regulation Across Infancy

Friday, January 15, 2016: 2:15 PM
Ballroom Level-Renaissance Ballroom West Salon A (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer A. Mortensen, PhD, Doris Duke Fellow for the Promotion of Child Well-Being, University of Arizona, Tuscon, AZ
Katherine W. Paschall, MS, Doris Duke Fellow for the Promotion of Child Well-Being, University of Arizona, Tuscon, AZ
Melissa A. Barnett, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Arizona, Tuscon, AZ
Ann M. Mastergeorge, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Arizona, Tuscon, AZ
Background and Purpose: Harsh parenting during infancy, characterized as intrusive and negative actions parents display towards their children, has deleterious consequences for the development of emotion regulation (ER), meaning the self-regulatory processes children use to effectively adapt their emotions.  Likewise, infants who have difficulty regulating their emotions may evoke harsher parenting.  These reciprocal processes risk entrenching parents and infants in negative cycles of interactions, in which increases in harsh parenting and poorer ER mutually reinforce one another across time.  It is critical to understand these processes in high-risk families, as they are often targets for family interventions that aim to enhance the quality of parent-infant interactions by helping parents minimize problematic behaviors, ensuring a good, healthy start for children.

Utilizing data from the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project (EHSRE), this study examines stability and reciprocal interactions between harsh parenting and ER across infancy.  We focus on stability in harsh parenting and ER across time, as well as cross-lagged associations across each time point.  Additionally, we examine variation in these processes due to participation in EHS services and child sex.    

Methods: Autoregressive cross-lagged path models were fit to examine reciprocal interactions between harsh parenting and ER at child age 14, 24, and 36months.  Multiple-group analyses examined variation by EHS participation and child sex.  The sample included EHS-participating (program) and EHS-eligible (control) families who participated in the 14months data collection time point (N=2343).  Infant ER was observed with the emotion regulation subscale of the Bayley Mental Development Index.  Harsh parenting was observed during a structured mother-infant play task (3-Bag Task), and represents the mean score of intrusive and negative regard behaviors mothers displayed towards their infants.

Results: Bivariate correlations indicated inverse associations between ER and harsh parenting within and across all time points.  Across all time points, boys had significantly lower ER and significantly higher harsh parenting than girls.  Results of a single-group path model indicated significant stability in harsh parenting and ER across 14-36months.  Harsh parenting at 14months was significantly associated with poorer ER at 24 and 36months.  ER was not predictive of future harsh parenting.  Results of two multiple-group path models (in which models with paths freely estimated were compared to models with paths constrained to be equal across groups) indicated no variation in these processes depending on EHS participation or child sex.   

Conclusions: Harsh parenting plays a significant role in ER.  Controlling for concurrent associations, ER was not associated with future harsh parenting; instead, harsh parenting at 14months had an overwhelming influence on ER across 24 and 36months.  These processes were similar for boys and girls, despite sex differences in mean levels of ER and harsh parenting.  Lack of variation in the model due to EHS participation has important implications for refining the role of intervention programs so they are effective at working with families to reduce problematic parenting practices that undermine ER, and ultimately maximize potential for children to have a good, healthy start.