How Does Maternal Unavailability Affect Aggression in Preterm Toddlers?

Children who are born prematurely, earlier than 37 weeks gestation, are at increased risk for physical, developmental, and cognitive impairments. Nearly one in every eight children is in this class. These children are likely to experience high levels of stress, behavior problems, and specifically aggression, during their toddler years. Although this dynamic has been well documented, less attention has been given to the relationship between maternal unavailability in parenting and aggression in preterm children. Daphne Blunt Bugental of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California in Santa Barbara recently conducted a study to explore this influence further.

A mother’s ability to be emotionally available to her child is more often than not determined by her own level of mental health. Mothers who struggle with depression are more reserved and tend to withhold attention and affection from their children more than nondepressed mothers. And mothers who care for at-risk children are more vulnerable to mood swings and high levels of stress. For her study, Bugental examined how a home intervention that included cognitive features (HV+) would affect preterm children’s behavior compared to a traditional home intervention program (HV). Bugental assessed the mothers and children at the beginning and conclusion of the 1-year program and again 2 years later. She found that the mothers involved in the HV-only program were less emotionally available to their children at follow-up, and their children were more aggressive than the children of mothers who received HV+.

The results of this study support earlier findings that suggest a mother’s emotional unavailability, as a result of depression or other stressors, can lead to aggressive behavior in children who are at-risk for developmental and cognitive challenges. Bugental believes that clinicians can benefit from this research by enhancing interventions targeted to at-risk families. Specifically, she recommends that clinicians and medical doctors should begin screening families immediately after the birth of a preterm child to determine which families are most likely to experience avoidance and aggression.

Bugental, D. B., Corpuz, R., Schwartz, A. (2012, February 13). Preventing Children’s Aggression: Outcomes of an Early Intervention. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027303

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Bryce


    February 17th, 2012 at 5:22 AM

    I have always observed that the more detached from the kids that the mom is, then the more wild behavior that the kids exhibit. Is it a way of trying to get some attention in a home that otherwise gives them none? Or is it really the ways that the kids develop within that kind of environment? I guess on that we can’t be sure. But one thing we do know is that parents have to be 100% innvolved in a child’s life to give him the best upbringing possible. If you are not willing to do that then why have kids in the first place?

  • lep


    February 17th, 2012 at 9:30 AM

    sounds right.its easy to find so many kids who are aggressive and are not receiving enough time from their mothers.I have seen many such children at a school I am involved with.

  • Claudia


    February 17th, 2012 at 4:42 PM

    Come on moms! Let’s get involved! Our kids need us!

  • Eliza


    February 17th, 2012 at 8:37 PM

    There’s just so much of invisible connection happening between a child and it’s mother right from the moment the child is born. they say keeping the mother an child together immediately after birth is good for both the mother and the child.and now about the presence of mothers.a wonderful relationship isn’t it?

  • Peyton


    February 18th, 2012 at 9:56 AM

    And think about this- do you think that while the mom is pregnant there is already some kind of emotional disconnect there? Something that could not only affect how far she is able to carry the baby to term but that also ultimately affects the bonding process, which could THEN lead to aggression in the toddlers? It just all boils down to the fact there is this unexplainable and unchangeable bond that is created between mother and child, and that is somehting that should be cherished an not mishandled as it is far too often.

  • Katie G

    Katie G

    February 20th, 2012 at 5:23 PM

    where are the dads?
    doesn’t their behavior count?

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.