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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