Parents of Toddlers Are Primed for Partner-Aggression Reduction Strategies

The first 3 years of children’s lives are critical to their development. The behaviors and attitudes a child witnesses from caregivers determines many of their future relationship outcomes. When partners engage in aggressive actions and exhibit violence in front of their toddler, their child may begin to display emotional problems, such as externalizing or internalizing their feelings. Parents with aggressive tendencies are more likely to mistreat their children by neglecting or abusing them, further increasing the psychological damage to the child. The rates of partner aggression and the ensuing negative consequences are disproportionately high in low-income populations. These are also the communities that need services and interventions the most.

To determine how parental aggression increases or decreases over this critical developmental period of a child’s life, Alice M. Graham of the Oregon Social Learning Center in Oregon led a study that followed the aggressive behaviors of parents through the first 3 years of their children’s lives. Graham enlisted the 461 participants from socioeconomically disadvantaged communities and assessed the parenting styles of the adults and the adjustment of the children several times over the 3 years. She found that overall, the levels of aggression decreased over the 3 years, beginning immediately following birth. This reduction in conflict could demonstrate the responsibility that the participants felt as a result of becoming parents. Contrary to other research that suggests the first few years of parenthood cause increased stress, conflict, and aggression between partners, Graham’s findings revealed that aggressive behaviors continued to fall significantly throughout the study period.

The study also showed that participants with depression and young maternal age had the highest levels of aggressive patterns at the onset. Because of this, the decrease in aggression was most significant in this group of participants. Healthy family functioning is vital to a child’s current and future well-being, and Graham believes that the toddler years present a ripe opportunity for offering interventions to families that struggle with aggression and suggests that the evidence of decline demonstrates a potential willingness in parents of toddlers. She added, “As levels of aggression decline, partners might be especially likely to benefit from learning skills for new, adaptive methods of problem-solving in the relationship.”

Graham, A. M., Kim, H. K., Foster, P. A. (2012). Partner aggression in high-risk families from birth to age 3 years: Associations with harsh parenting and child maladjustment. Journal of Family Psychology 26.1, 105-114.

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  • Molly


    April 4th, 2012 at 3:34 PM

    I can’t believe the parents who display this kind of behavior in fron of their kids. But some yell and scream at one another like it is nothing, like the kids should just get used to it or something.
    What they get used to though is that this is the only way of expressing themselves so they begin to model this exact kind of behavior themselves.
    And that is too bad when they are like this because they are just modeling their own parents behavior.

  • CATE


    April 5th, 2012 at 1:23 AM

    Surprising that still some parents display violent behavior in the presence of their little is this kind of irresponsible parenting that leads people to say parents should take better care of their kids, no matter how well most of us do with our kids.

  • Paul


    April 5th, 2012 at 6:39 AM

    We all get frustrated and angry with our partner from time to time. It is just as bad to not show that anger though as it is to show it to the extreme. My wife and I never fought in front of our young children. But as they got a little older we felt a little more open to expressing our true feelings when they arose. I hate that we waited that long to express those feelings, sometimes angry, in front of them because when we did they would go to pieces and immediately assume that we were getting a divorce. And these were not battles- just sometimes normal disagreements would send them over the edge. I think that the improtant thing that parents need to remember is that you have to be yourself even with the kids present but that does not mean that you have to go ballistic, and the kids need to see that it’s ok to argue as long as you handle it responsibly and that you are willing to apologize and make up like grown ups.

  • Mary Ellen K

    Mary Ellen K

    April 5th, 2012 at 8:05 AM

    This is kind of a challenging topic given that the girls and boys who become young parents are the ones who are simply repeating what they have seen in their own homes, and while they are at the most critical need for intervention, they are also typically going to be those who are the least likely to seek it out and the least likely to be able to afford that.

  • Susan Truett

    Susan Truett

    April 6th, 2012 at 4:23 AM

    Thanks! Scott Miller, PhD used to present online the latest research for therapists. He would also discuss the quality and quantity of research on any given topic, such as ‘worth replicating’, ‘too soon to tell’ or ‘flaws in the design’. I miss that, it was so valuable to therapists.

    When I think about a possible reduction in violence in new families, I think of oxytocin and it’s powerful effects. I also think of how kids tend to bring out the best ( and the worst) out in all of us.

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