From over-reactive parenting to externalizing behaviour problems

externalizing behaviour It's well-established that young children who engage in "externalizing behaviours" - aggressive, acting-out behaviours, arguing, and temper outbursts - are at greater risk for a range of difficulties later in life, including mental health problems and relationship difficulties. Externalizing behaviours are frustrating and embarrassing for parents - it’s hard to stay calm when your child is yelling at you or breaking things! The precursors of these rule-breaking, aggressive behaviours are sometimes evident at a young age. One aspect of infant temperament, negative emotionality (referring to a tendency to experience fear, anger, and sadness), has been linked to externalizing behaviour later in childhood. We think of a baby’s temperament as being innate or inherited, because of early differences between the personalities of different infants. In fact, although temperament is partly inherited, it can also be affected by experiences - especially early interactions with parents. The problem is, in the early toddler stage, there’s a lot of potential for negative emotions as the child attempts to become more independent. Obviously, parents want their kids to learn the rules and to behave appropriately, but the “terrible twos” is a frustrating time. If a parent overreacts to their kids’ limit-testing behaviour and negative emotions, it could have a long-term impact that may include externalizing behaviour problems.

In the current issue of Development and Psychopathology, researchers looked at the development externalizing behaviour in kids from the age of 9 to 27 months. Temperament played a role, with the child’s negative emotionality at 9 months predicting externalizing behaviour 18 months later. It makes sense that sad, angry, fearful infants might grow into angry, stubborn, aggressive toddlers. What role does the parent play? Mothers who overreacted to their toddler’s behavior - that is, moms who had harsh, angry, and irritable responses to their children - were more likely to have 27 month-olds with externalizing behaviour problems. The relationship between the mother’s overreactions and externalizing behaviour seemed to be a complex negative spiral. Harsh, angry, irritable responses to the behaviour and emotional reactions of toddlers (who test the rules as a natural part of their development at that age) led to an increase in the toddlers’ feelings of sadness, fear, and anger, leading to more overreactions from parents and eventually to externalizing behaviour.

So it looks like parents who overreact to a toddler’s naturally-occurring limit-testing and individuation might actually be increasing the behaviour that they want to stop! The terrible twos can be a stressful time, but a parent's reactions to this stage appear to have an impact on the child’s later ability to handle frustration and disappointment without externalizing behaviour problems. I think the take-away from the study is this: Parents need to consider a child’s developmental stage before reacting to behaviour that might be developmentally apropriate. None of us would punish an infant for crying; we need to stay calm when our toddlers test the limits too!

Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor. Doctor Brian discussed kids in general in this article, but every child is unique; your experience may vary.