How a child self-regulates his or her emotions is a strong predictor of how he or she will behave in adolescence. Children with little self-regulation may be at risk for externalizing behaviors, risk-taking, and conduct issues. Others may internalize their emotional problems and develop symptoms of anxiety or depression. Maternal influence plays a significant role in how a child self-regulates. And although there is much research examining the relationship between parenting and self-regulation in young children, there is less evidence of the long-term effects. Stacey N. Doan of the Department of Psychology at Boston University sought to determine how parental interactions, warmth, responsiveness, and harshness were related to self-regulation in children and, subsequently, externalizing and internalizing behaviors in adolescence.
Doan evaluated 265 children from a low-income neighborhood and assessed them at ages 9, 13, and 17. She also evaluated the interaction the children had with their mothers, and how external stress, such as poverty, affected the maternal behavior and self-regulation of the children. She found that children who had poor emotional self-regulation at age 9 had more externalizing behavior at ages 13 and 17. She also found the mothers who exhibited little maternal warmth had children with weaker self-regulation skills. Doan believes that living in impoverished conditions can add a layer of stress to the family dynamic, elevating the unresponsiveness of the mother. This can also lead a mother to withhold affection and increase harsh discipline measures, even to the point of abuse. These are merely theories, but according to the data presented here, the effects of chronic stress on self-regulation in children warrant further examination.
The findings of this study also imply that children’s self-regulatory functions do not increase their risk for internalizing behaviors in adolescence. This finding should be considered with caution, as the scope of this research was limited. For example, the mothers were not evaluated for depression, a condition which could significantly increase internalizing behavior in children. Also, the participants of this study were not culturally diverse. “It would be important for future work to examine the ways in which cultural values, beliefs, and practices may moderate these relationships,” Doan added.
Doan, Stacey N., Thomas E. Fuller-Rowell, and Gary W. Evans. Cumulative risk and adolescents’ internalizing and externalizing problems: The mediating roles of maternal responsiveness and self-regulation. Developmental Psychology 48.6 (2012): 1529-539. Print.
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