Young children who suffer from abuse or neglect often develop problems with following directions and complying with the expectations of parents and other authority figures. Lack of compliance can lead to other issues, including difficulty regulating anger and academic problems.
In a new study, researchers evaluated the effectiveness of a home-visiting intervention designed for parents of children referred to Child Protective Services (CPS). The results show that children whose parents who participated in the intervention demonstrated significantly better compliance than children whose parents did not, and that parents’ sensitivity also increased.
The findings are published in the journal Child Development.
“Overall, our findings demonstrate that a brief, preventive intervention in infancy can have long-lasting effects on the compliance of children referred to CPS,” according to Dr. Teresa Lind, postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego, and the Child and Adolescent Services Research Center in San Diego, and lead author of the study.
“The intervention helped increase parents’ sensitivity, and this change played a role in the changes in the children.”
The research team, led by Mary Dozier, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware, examined whether a 10-week home-based intervention called Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC) could enhance compliance in children whose mothers received either the intervention or a control intervention when the children were infants.
The parents of the children had been involved with CPS due to concerns related to domestic violence, parents’ substance use, homelessness, or neglect. The children were, on average, 9 months old at the beginning of the research.
The goal of ABC, designed by Dozier and her team, is to help parents increase sensitivity by following their children’s lead, nurturing children when they are distressed, and avoiding frightening behaviors (e.g., yelling) to enhance children’s self-regulation and compliance.
The control intervention also lasted 10 weeks and was similar in structure to ABC but focused on enhancing children’s motor, cognitive, and language skills.
When the children were about 3 years old, the researchers evaluated their compliance levels: while parents filled out questionnaires nearby, an experimenter told children they were allowed to read a book but were not allowed to touch the toys placed on a nearby low shelf.
The findings show that children whose parents participated in ABC demonstrated significantly better compliance than those whose parents took part in the control intervention.
Specifically, fewer children in the ABC group touched the toys than in the control group, and children in the ABC group also touched the toys for shorter periods of time and waited longer before touching the toys than children in the control group.
In addition, parents in the ABC group showed significantly higher levels of sensitivity a month after the intervention than parents who participated in the control intervention. And there was some evidence that parents’ sensitivity partially mediated the effect of the intervention on their children’s compliance at age 3.
“These results point to the enduring effects of the ABC intervention on children’s ability to control their behavior under challenging conditions,” said Dozier. “We know that controlling one’s behavior — for example, being able to sit at one’s desk and pay attention to the teacher — is critical to success in school.”