A long-term study suggests aggressive, defiant, and explosive kindergarten children have experienced tumultuous, negative relationships with their mothers from early on.

University of Minnesota researchers studied more than 260 mothers and their children, following them from the children’s birth until first grade. They assessed infants’ difficult temperament as well as how they were parented between the first week and the sixth month of life, based on both observations and parent reports.

When the children were 2 and a half and 3 years old, the researchers watched mothers with their children doing tasks that challenged the children and required assistance from the parents.

Finally, when the children were in kindergarten and first grade, researchers asked moms and teachers to rate the children’s behavior problems.

“Before the study, we thought it was likely the combination of difficult infant temperament and negative parenting that put parent-child pairs most at risk for conflict in the toddler period, and then put the children at risk for conduct problems at school age,” according to lead author Michael F. Lorber, Ph.D., now a research scientist at New York University. “However, our findings suggest that it was negative parenting in early infancy that mattered most.”

Researchers defined negative parenting to include when parents expressed negative emotions toward their children, handled them roughly, and the like.

The researchers also found that it was escalating or progressive conflict between moms and their toddlers that predicted later conduct problems –that is, conflict that worsened over time.

And in a cyclical pattern, when moms parented their infants negatively, that resulted in their children showing high levels of anger as toddlers, which in turn caused more hostility from the moms.

Additionally, moms who parented their infants negatively also may have had angrier kids because these moms were more hostile toward their toddlers.

Negative parenting in infancy appeared to set the stage for both moms and their kids to be more hostile and angry during the toddler years, bringing out the worst in one another.

“The results of our study move beyond descriptive findings to explain the underlying process linking how mothers parent their children in infancy and the problems children have in early elementary school,” Lorber adds.

Researchers believe the study’s findings can help in the development of appropriate interventions to target negative parenting — beginning as early as 3 months — to help prevent later conduct problems in children.

The study appears in the journal Child Development.

Source: Society for Research in Child Development