Children whose parents often threaten and criticize them are more likely to become defiant and aggressive, research shows. But these effects can be buffered by warm relationships with teachers and school friends, a new study suggests.
Kindergartners who experienced harsh parenting but also had developed close buddies were less likely at the end of the school year to exhibit behaviors such as defiance towards adults, rule breaking and angry outbursts than those who did not have warm relationships, according to the study published in Development and Psychopathology.
"This highlights the potential utility of interventions that are more school based for oppositional defiant disorder behaviors," said study leader Danielle Roubinov of the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. "Parent management training programes are some of the most widely used interventions for these kids, but a large proportion of families don't respond to these kinds of interventions."
Roubinov and her colleagues studied the impact of school-based relationships on 383 kindergartners from 29 classrooms in six public schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. Seventy-one percent had been exposed to high levels of harsh parenting, while the other 29 percent had been exposed to lower levels of harsh parenting.
Overall, 10 percent of the children met the criteria for oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).
Young children with ODD often don't outgrow it. ODD has been associated with an elevated risk of antisocial behavior, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, criminal offenses and incarceration in adolescence and adulthood.
To take a closer look at the possible buffering effects of warm relationships at school, the researchers collected information from the children themselves, parents, teachers and other students.
"First we asked parents to report on their parenting practices," Roubinov said. "We asked about their discipline strategies, including how harsh, negative or critical their parenting was."
Children were asked how warm, caring and positive they felt their relationships were with their teachers. Teachers were asked about their relationships with the children and about how well the children fit in with others in the classroom.
To get a sense of how well a child got along with peers, the researchers interviewed the entire class. "We went into the classroom and showed the children a big display board with pictures of all the classmates and told them to nominate which classmates they liked to play with," Roubinov said. "From that we could derive how well accepted a student was among their peers."
In the fall, at the beginning of the study, all three groups were asked about the children's ODD behaviors. The groups were asked to rate the behaviors again in the spring.
When the researchers analyzed ODD symptoms from a composite of parent, teacher and children's reports, they found harshly parented kids who were liked and accepted by their classmates had a 64 percent lower ODD symptom score than children who were not liked. Those who were exposed to harsh parenting but had a warm relationship with their teacher had a 29 percent lower ODD symptom score than counterparts without a positive teacher relationship.
The new study shows that "for kids who have parenting that is less than optimal, there are opportunities in both their friendships and relationships with teachers at school to get the support, engagement and reinforcement of their worth that may help blunt the negative impact of harsh parenting," said Patrick Tolan, the Charles S. Robb Professor in the Curry School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia. "But I don't think the message from this study is that having good friendships overcomes harsh parenting."
The best solution, Tolan said, is to give parents the training they need so they will be less harsh with their children. "The first step is learning to monitor yourself and to calm yourself down," Tolan said.