Maternal Attachment Status, Mother-Child Emotion Talk, Emotion Understanding, and Child Conduct Problems

AbstractConduct problems that emerge in childhood often persist into adolescence and are associated with a range of negative outcomes. It is therefore important to identify the factors that predict conduct problems in early childhood. The present study investigated the relations among maternal attachment status, mother-child emotion talk, child emotion understanding, and conduct problems in a sample of 92 (46 males) typically developing children (M age = 61.3 months, SD = 8.3 months). The results support a model in which maternal attachment status predicts the level of appropriate/responsive mother-child emotion talk, which predicts child emotion understanding, which in turn negatively predicts child conduct problems. These findings further underline the developmental role of mother-child emotion talk as well as the importance of involving parents in programs designed to increase children’s emotion understanding and/or decrease the incidence of conduct problems.

1. IntroductionConduct problems involve atypical levels of oppositional behavior, aggression, stealing, and physical destructiveness [1]. These problems can begin in childhood [2] or adolescence [3] and may continue through the lifecycle [4]. Children who display conduct problems in the preschool years are at high risk of having problems that persist into adolescence (see [5] for a brief review). Indeed, this pattern, described as early starter [6], early onset [7], or life-course-persistent [8], is associated with the most negative prognosis including diagnoses of conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, antisocial personality disorder, juvenile delinquency, school dropout, drug abuse, and criminality [1, 4, 9–11].

There is fairly broad theoretical agreement that conduct problems develop and are maintained through dynamic interactions among child, parental, peer, and environmental factors [1, 3, 12–14]. These factors include attachment patterns [15], emotion socialization [16], parenting [14], emotion understanding, and regulation skills [17] among others. These findings fit well with social-constructivist perspectives in which individual characteristics influence the parent-child interaction/socialisation which facilitate children’s sociocognitive and behavioral development [18, 19].

Crittenden [20] argued that attachment patterns are self-protective strategies that are initially learned in interactions with attachment figures in early childhood and continue to develop across the lifespan. Securely attached adults are comfortable depending on others, find it relatively easy to get close to other people, and are not worried or anxious about being abandoned [21]. They find it easier to identify and appropriately respond to the emotional signals and needs of others. Children with more insightful or emotionally attuned mothers are more likely to develop a secure attachment pattern [22].

Drawing on social-constructivist perspectives and attachment theory, it has been hypothesized that (a) adult attachment status influences the extent to which parents talk to their child about the child’s emotions [20, 23] with secure attachment associated with more appropriate/responsive talk about emotions [24, 25], (b) that parent-child emotion talk is an important aspect of socialization that facilitates children’s emotion understanding [19], and (c) that emotion understanding reduces the incidence of conduct problems by enabling more advanced emotion and behavior regulation skills and a better understanding of what motivates the behavior of self and others [26].

We are unaware of any research that has directly examined hypothesis (a). However, there are findings indicating that mothers of securely attached preschool children are more likely to validate their child’s negative emotions and that securely attached children are more likely to discuss negative emotions with their mothers [27]. Similarly, Farrar et al. [24] found that mothers of securely attached preschool girls were less likely to ignore their child’s negative emotion talk and more likely to elaborate on it. Consistent with hypothesis (b), the findings of a number of studies provide support for a developmental relationship between parent-child emotion talk and children’s emotion understanding [28–33]. These findings are also consistent with the argument that children’s emotion understanding is facilitated by engaging in conversations in which they learn how to talk about emotions [30]. Consistent with hypothesis (c), there is evidence indicating that deficits in emotion understanding are associated with increased aggression [26, 28], poor school adjustment [34], behavior problems [35], and conduct problems more broadly [36].

Thus, the existing literature provides some support for developmental relations among attachment status, parent-child emotion talk, emotion understanding, and child conduct problems. However, there is a dearth of research investigating all these relations in the same study. The purpose of the present study was to use a social-constructivist approach to further our understanding of these relations in early childhood development. Drawing on previous work in this area, it was predicted that (1) mothers with secure attachment status would be likely to engage in more appropriate/responsive mother-child emotion talk, (2) higher levels of mother-child emotion talk would be associated with better child emotion understanding, and (3) children with better emotion understanding would have fewer conduct problems. The hypothesized model is displayed in Figure 1. As both child age and gender have been found to be

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