Defiant Children Exacerbate Mothers’ Need for Power and Control

The relationship between a mother and her child is a complex and continually changing one. When children are born, they are completely dependent on their mothers for everything. As they age, they begin to assert their own desires and personality traits manifest. Mothers’ personality traits also impact the relationship and can be additionally influenced by external stressors, such as financial limitations and family tension. In a recent study, Grazyna Kochanska of the Department of Psychology at the University of Iowa assessed how socioeconomic stress and child behavior affected the mother-child relationship and how the Big Five personality traits of neuroticism, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and openness were moderated by these stressors.

Kochanska assessed 186 mothers and their toddlers, all from low-income environments. The dyads were studied in highly stressful situations and non-stress-inducing situations and the children were classified as easy (cooperative) or difficult (defiant). The results revealed that when children were difficult, extroverted mothers tried to assert more power. Kochanska believes that the aggressive behavior in children may trigger dominant behavior in the mothers, leading them to assert more control in difficult situations. This same effect was found in the neurotic mothers. But mothers high in conscientiousness demonstrated less control when their children were behaving defiantly. These associations did not exist in the mothers of easy children. This finding suggests that conscientiousness serves as a catalyst for more adaptive and productive coping strategies.

The study also revealed some interesting findings in the absence of stressors. Open mothers demonstrated more maternal warmth and positive parenting practices than the open mothers under stress. Likewise, the mothers with highly agreeable personalities had high levels of positive parenting and warmth. These mothers also demonstrated positive behaviors when under financial stress, but not when dealing with unruly children. Kochanska notes that these results reveal two unique relationships between stress and parenting. First, chronic stress from financial or family conditions can deplete resources needed for maternal warmth and responsiveness. “By contrast, more immediate stress due to the child’s aversive, angry resistance is, not surprisingly, strongly linked to the mother’s forceful, power-assertive discipline,” said Kochanska. Regardless of which type of stress is present, more work needs to be done to further examine the negative impact of these stressors on parenting.

Kochanska, Grazyna, Sanghag Kim, and Jamie Koenig Nordling. Challenging circumstances moderate the links between mothers’ personality traits and their parenting in low-income families with young children. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 103.6 (2012): 1040-049. Print.

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  • Nikki


    December 27th, 2012 at 11:48 AM

    I found that when my kids were younger, the more defiant and strong willed they became the more this forced me to become the same, even though this is not my natural inclination! They were so strong in their resistance to my efforts to disciplinie it made me become the mom I never wanted to be. I still think that had they both been a little more laid back maybe I could have been more laid back too and not been the monster mom that I am pretty sure at times they did not want to have to come home to. They are older now and the relationship is better but I can’t help but wonder what could have been if only they would have allowed me to be what I always wanted to be as a parent.

  • samantha


    December 27th, 2012 at 12:07 PM

    when infants decide to be difficult they can cause problems to the is easy to run short on patience when such a stress factor is in place.although conscientiousness may help I do not think those that will suffer will have well developed conscientiousness in the first place.

  • bart


    December 27th, 2012 at 2:31 PM

    As parents we have to be the ones to stay in control. You can’t let the bad behavior of the kids to cause your own poor choices to escalate too. As a matter of fact I think that we have all seen when the louder we get the louder they get. The moral to this story is that if you as an adult can stay in contrl then there is a much better chance that the kids can do it too. They will model what they see.

  • Greta


    December 28th, 2012 at 3:50 AM

    Well, who do you think creates the defiant children in the first place? Duh, it’s the parents who feed into every whim and bad behavior, and that creates a child who is willfull and unwilling to take direction even from those who should technically be in charge of the home.

  • Jackson


    December 28th, 2012 at 7:25 AM

    Nikki, it sounds to me like you are blaming your kids for not being the best mom you could be. Who is the adult here?

  • Maria


    February 6th, 2013 at 8:32 AM

    This is the typical comment from inexperienced people. It doesn’t help. Compassion and understanding make a huge difference for both the parents and the child.

  • Allen


    December 28th, 2012 at 7:27 AM

    i dont agree with samantha when she says

    when infants decide to be difficult they can cause problems to the mother

    i dont think babies can decide to be difficult. i think they just go off instinct when they cry and stuff.

  • Jefferson


    December 28th, 2012 at 7:50 AM

    When moms have a need for power and control, they just need to surpress it. Moms are supposed to be the ones to nurture their kids, not damage them. Coming from a childhood with a control-freak mom, I should know. Ladies, if you can’t control your own need to control, get a pet. Please just don’t have kids.

  • m rueda

    m rueda

    December 28th, 2012 at 7:53 AM

    My heart goes out to Jefferson and all other children dealing with stressed out moms. This world today is so difficult and so stressful. Having children is probably the ultimate stressor, so being a great mom is a tall order.

  • deb


    December 28th, 2012 at 1:08 PM

    I hardly think that this is true in every case.
    I see quite a few moms who are actually more than a little cowed by the experience of having overly defiant kids, moms who will actually shrink into themselves and become less of the disciplinarian than they need to be in these circumstances. It is funny how one so small can almost feel so overwhelming for many adults who simply are not prepared to handle one so bent on getting his or her own way.

  • GINA


    December 28th, 2012 at 3:36 PM

    @Jefferson:Suppression would not be the right outlet.They may choose an activity or just exercise to channelize their energy rather than to show it by being controlling towards the child but suppressing it within will only cause problems.

  • marcy


    December 28th, 2012 at 10:38 PM

    tough situations call for tough measures.its not surprizing to see that mothers tend to exhibit more control when a toddler is tough.its a natural whether this is too much control or not is up for discussion,because that is subjective.but the fact is that it happens and it happens quite naturally.

  • Lance l

    Lance l

    December 29th, 2012 at 4:05 AM

    So the tendency to control and be this way is already in many ways evident in these mothers- it is that the children bring out the very worst in them!

  • Dwight


    December 29th, 2012 at 12:52 PM

    Difficult kids and the moms who yell at them and jerk them around get on my nerves. I hate seeing them out places. like the mall and mcdonalds and stuff. just stay at home if you cant handle your kids. please.

  • Stanley


    December 29th, 2012 at 12:54 PM

    i always wondered why some kids are difficult and some aren’t. Do you think it’s the moms who make them that way? Maybe it’s the moms making the kids difficult which in turn creates a controlling mom. Kind of a which came first the chicken or the egg thing.

  • samantha


    December 29th, 2012 at 2:09 PM

    @Allen:I didn’t mean the children do it consciously,maybe I put it the wrong way.

    A parent has so many responsibilities and duties.This proves that patience is one of them and a very important component of parenting.Without patience it is very easy to lose a grip on things because kids are unreasonable,that’s the way they are,they cannot help it.We were the same to our parents too.Taking care of children needs a lot of patience and understanding.Even if they do seem uncontrollable at times it is for the parent to handle the situation appropriately because you cannot do a tit-for-tat with children.

  • Grayson


    December 30th, 2012 at 4:35 AM

    Putting the blame for this on the kids is so immature in my eyes.
    Where are the adults here and who is supposed to be the ones to keep that defiance under control and be a good role model for the children and how you expect them to behave? The parents. And what are they sometimes doing instead? Allowing their own feelings and emotions get in the way of making sound and effective parenting decisions.
    Look, I have dealt with challenging children, and they can definitely try the soul! But enough to make me lose my own cool and stop being for them what they need me to be? No.
    I am no saint and I know it is hard to parent any child, and some are tougher than others. But I think that you kind of have an idea of what you are signing on for when you choose to become a parent.
    All I am saying is that there is a better way, and when you are a good parent you will find a way to discover that and try to implement only the best for your kids.

  • Preston


    December 30th, 2012 at 7:20 AM

    I see nothing wrong with this.It seems like a natural reaction.Some children are easier to care for than others and the care giver will adopt accordingly.As long as it doesn’t negatively impact a child I don’t see why the mothers should be too concerned about it.This is a study of reaction after all.Reaction need not always be consistent.

  • Janessa


    December 30th, 2012 at 3:37 PM

    While its easy 2 become controlling when dealing wid a difficult child it should b avoided at all can set the tone to what d child comes to expect of a parent n can negatively impact their relationships in d future..while some control is required I think it is best to avoid our instinctive approach to affect our children..a well thought-out plan is what is required to counter difficult children..nobody said parenting is gonna b easy!

  • cora s

    cora s

    December 31st, 2012 at 5:51 AM

    I have one child who is very sedate and calm while I have naother who is truly off the walls and who would rather die than to not get his way. Do I parent them differently? Of course I do, I feel like I have to to make even a little bit of an impact on my strong willed child. He won’t listen when I talk softly, it’s as if he only responds when I have my temper and voice escalated. I don’t think that I did anything to craete this because I have another who is completely opposite. This is just the way he has always been.

  • Maria


    February 6th, 2013 at 8:12 AM

    Good on you Cora. I have 2 boys that are opposites in every way. The standards that I set and my expectations of their behavior were the same to start with but I had to change my parenting style to meet their specific needs.

  • nelson


    December 31st, 2012 at 1:22 PM

    while kids can be tough at times,I feel other factors contribute a lot to how much patience we have as a parent when kids are being stubborn.A parent who is at peace is far more likely to handle a difficult situation in an appropriate manner than a parent who has a slew of other things worrying them.the fact that this study was done in low-income families could be a reason why the observed behavior was seen.



    December 31st, 2012 at 10:26 PM

    Well an extroverted person is bound to react in a commanding manner no matter what the stressors,whether it is from a difficult colleague at work or a defiant child.

    Although this is a characteristic of the parent as an individual,it needs to be pruned when dealing with children.Because it can adversely impact the child in the developmental stage and that certainly isn’t a good thing.

  • sebrina


    January 2nd, 2013 at 3:52 AM

    The one thing that I can say about much of this is that we learn from our own parents how to behave in certain situations.

    I was a definat child, and my parents allowed that, they encouraged my opposition somewhat and left me free to explore who and what I felt I wanted and needed to be.

    I never felt that angst and anxiety from them that I did not conform to the role of the “good” child. They were okay with that and I think that that alone made me a little more comfortable in my own skin. I realized that to be me I didn’t have to push it to the limit, but to rather find people who could accept that about me and appreciate that need that I had to be a little more unique and a little more me.

  • Mark


    January 2nd, 2013 at 8:37 AM

    Granted, overbearing parents would likely impact their kids’ development negatively. Unfortunately, many people have taken it to the other extreme these days and just want to be “friends” with their little ones, and therefore resort to cajoling/coercing/reasoning with them instead of carry out punishment after the FIRST clear warning against unacceptable behaviour. Kids pick up on parents need for approval/love. Of course punishment doesn’t have to be violent or abusive or shouting – it could be temporary denial of rewards or freedom. But it needs to be fair, consistent and swift. Don’t give away your power for fear of losing a “friend”. You’ll be a better parent for it, and one day your kids will be thankful to you.

  • SL


    January 2nd, 2013 at 2:22 PM

    Come on now, difficult children can and will test the patience even the most caring and patient parent. its no surprise that those with a controlling habit will only be driven to harden their stance in such a situation.

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