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disruptive behavior

Despite Best Intentions, Mums, Kids Stress Each Other Out

In a new study, researchers at the University of Illinois explored possibly the most realistic scenario in the history of the world: to what degree stressed mothers are able to support their children’s stress while they handle their own.

Research shows that how parents react to their children’s aggravating or stressful behavior can play an important role in a child’s emotional development. Some parents are naturally predisposed towards patience during such times, others are not. Regardless, when a child’s stress-induced behavior creates stress for a parent, it has the potential to kick off a feedback loop of increasingly negative parental reactions and more adverse behavior from the child. Which is a problem, because children are constantly taking to heart these subtle stress and emotional management cues from adults around them.

During the study, mothers were asked to complete a task while their children waited to receive a snack. The concept was simple: Children would be stressed by the delayed gratification, and the mothers would be stressed by both the need to complete the task and their child’s behavior while waiting.

Most children, obviously, became disruptive as the scenario progressed. Mothers responded to their behavior in a variety of supportive ways including distracting kids from the stressful situation, validating kids’ feelings, or explaining the reasons behind the stressful scenario, explained Niyantri Ravindran, a doctoral student in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at U of I. At other times, moms displayed non-supportive behaviors, such as ignoring their child, physically moving the child, taking the distracting item away from the child, or interrupting the child. (Unfortunately, fathers were not included in the study, which seems like a missed opportunity; it’s not like dads can’t provide these responses, too.)

Mothers also filled out questionnaires about how they usually respond to potentially stressful situations with their children. For example, mothers rated their tendency to become upset themselves when their child falls down, gets hurt, and becomes upset.

While it quickly became clear that mothers with personalities generally prone to stress were also less likely to respond to children’s stress supportively, another pattern emerged: Moms who responded supportively at first became less supportive over time, as the child continued to wait and disrupt. In other words, as the mothers’ own stress increased, their ability to support their child through a similar experience decreased.

Nancy McElwain, a professor of human development and family studies at U of I and co-author of the study, pointed to a time lag between a child’s disruptive behavior and a mother’s less-supportive response, saying it’s clear the mother’s behavior is prompted by the child.

“If the association was in the same interval,” she explained, then “questions would remain about the direction of the association: Is the child showing disruptive behavior because the mom is less supportive, or is the mom less supportive because the child is being disruptive?”

While not, perhaps, the most penetrating of scientific insights, it provides comforting evidence of what many moms forget: that moms are only human. Humans who can’t always prevent their child from behaving badly, yet who must constantly strive to do so — often getting stressed and snippy (and judged) during the effort.

McElwain said the study is not meant to identify “good or bad” parents.

“We are saying that parenting is challenging, and these moments when young children are distressed and are acting out, are especially challenging,” she said. “Being aware of that and being able to identify how you are feeling while also validating the child’s emotions is important for both you and your child.”

This kind of awareness can create opportunities outside of tantrums to support kids’ emotional development.

“The toddler years provide many opportunities for parents to talk to their children about emotions,” McElwain said. “Although talking with a toddler about his or her emotions in the midst of a tantrum is often not possible, parents might talk with the child afterwards in a simple and brief way about what happened.”

Keep calm and soldier on, moms.

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