Study: Mothers exposed to violence more prone to aggressive parenting

The study, which appeared in a recent issue of Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a survey of mothers of newborns in 20 large U.S. cities across 15 states. Zhang and Eamon’s sample consisted of more than 2,200 mothers who were interviewed for the third time when their children were about 5 years old.

Mothers were asked to rate how frequently they had witnessed beatings, attacks or shootings and if they had witnessed killings outside their homes.

Mothers also were surveyed on their use of physically aggressive parenting practices – including spanking, slapping, pinching or shaking – and psychologically aggressive behaviors, such as shouting, swearing, calling the child derogatory names and threatening to spank, strike or expel the child from the home.

Parents were asked to identify whether their children exhibited aggressive behaviors such as arguing and destroying family members’ or other people’s property.

More than one-third of the mothers in the study had been exposed to community violence at least once. Women with moderate or high levels of violence exposure were more likely to engage in higher levels of psychologically aggressive and physically aggressive parenting practices. More than 78 percent of mothers engaged in moderate to high levels of psychologically aggressive parenting tactics, and 49 percent used physically aggressive practices.

“We found that higher levels of mothers’ violence exposure are associated with higher levels of aggressive parenting,” said Zhang, who is a postdoctoral research associate in the Children and Family Research Center, which is a unit in the School of Social Work at Illinois.

Children whose mothers had moderate exposure to violence were more likely to act out aggressively by arguing or destroying property, and children’s aggressive behaviors escalated in correlation with mothers’ exposure to high levels of violence.

“Mothers with more exposure to community violence tend to conduct more aggressive parenting, both psychologically and physically, and such kinds of aggressive parenting subsequently will lead to aggressive behavior in children,” Zhang said.

However, only about one-third of children’s aggressive behaviors can be explained by mothers’ aggression, the study said. The researchers do not fully understand the interrelationships of community violence, parental aggression and children’s aggression, whether the adults become increasingly aggressive with their children because they are worried about their children’s becoming involved in neighborhood violence or if children’s aggression is triggered by the violence, prompting aggressive reactions from parents. Or it might be that neighborhood violence exerts added stress on parents, increasing the likelihood of their lashing out verbally or physically at their children.

Neighborhood, parent and child aggression might also reflect community standards that condone violence as an acceptable response to frustration and a means of solving problems, the researchers wrote.

“One of the unexplained factors may be that children are being exposed to the same acts of violence as their mothers,” said Eamon, who is a faculty member in the School of Social Work.

Aggressive behaviors in children could be fostered in other ways as well. Violent youth and adults could serve as negative role models for children who lack positive role models and live in neighborhoods that lack resources that support children. And it’s possible that living in dangerous neighborhoods may exacerbate stress felt by parents and their children, precipitating behavioral problems in the children.

It’s also possible that all of these processes are co-occurring, Zhang and Eamon wrote in a research brief about their study that was released in January.

Many of the mothers had multiple risk factors that research has linked to higher levels of stress: 40 percent of families lived below the poverty line, 45 percent had used food stamps during the prior 12 months, and 66 percent were single-parent households.

Although it was not the focus of the study, Zhang and Eamon found that maternal stress levels and mothers’ consumption of four or more alcoholic drinks during the prior year also correlated to increased levels of aggressive behaviors in children.

Since violence has pervasive negative impacts on parenting and child behavior, a comprehensive approach is required that involves communities, parents and children, the researchers said.

Resources need to be available for community revitalization projects, increased police activity, and collective action initiatives such as neighborhood watches that help reduce violence. Families living in dangerous neighborhoods also need support mechanisms for coping with stress, and child welfare and mental health professionals need to assess the role of community violence and parents’ use of aggressive disciplinary methods when developing interventions for families.

Editor’s note: To contact SaiJun Zhang, call 21-244-5215; email [email protected].To contact Mary Keegan Eamon, call 217-244-5238; [email protected].

Sharita Forrest, News Editor | 217-244-1072; [email protected]