maternal attributions and young children's conduct problems: a longitudinal study

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  • Infant and Child DevelopmentInf. Child Dev. 15: 109121 (2006)

    Published online in Wiley InterScience ( DOI: 10.1002/icd.440

    Maternal Attributions and YoungChildrens Conduct Problems:A Longitudinal Study

    Charlotte Wilsona,*, Frances Gardnerb, Jennifer Burtonb

    and Sarah LeungcaBrookside Family Consultation Clinic, Douglas House, Cambridge, UKbDepartment of Social Policy and Social Work, University of Oxford, UKcChild and Family Consultation Service, Swindon, UK

    The association between negative maternal attributions andchild conduct problems is well established in correlationalstudies. However, little is known about how these variablesinfluence each other over time. The present study examinedpatterns of prediction over time between maternal attributionsand pre-school conduct problems. Sixty mothers and their 3-year-old children with a range of levels of conduct problems wereinterviewed when the child was just 3, and then again when thechild was just 4. Childhood conduct problems were assessedusing the parental account of childhood symptoms and parentalattributions were assessed using a modification of WalkersParental Attribution Questionnaire. Results indicate that even asyoung as age 3, child conduct problems are associated withnegative maternal attributions. In longitudinal analyses, chil-drens conduct problems at age 3 predicted mothers attributionsat age 4, but mothers attributions did not predict childrensconduct problems over the same time period. The data areconsistent with the notion that negative attributions may be aresult, rather than a cause, of having a difficult-to-manage child.This has implications for current proposed mechanisms that linkmaternal attributions and child conduct problems, and thus forinterventions for these problems. Copyright # 2006 John Wiley& Sons, Ltd.

    Key words: maternal attributions; pre-school conduct problems;longitudinal


    Pre-school conduct problems are common, persistent, costly to society and have apoor prognosis (Richman et al., 1982). Young children with early-starting

    Copyright # 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

    *Correspondence to: Charlotte Wilson, Brookside Family Consultation Clinic, 18dTrumpington Road, Cambridge, CB2 2AH, UK. E-mail:

  • antisocial behaviour are more likely to have poor social, academic and healthoutcomes later in life, with some children going on to show delinquent andcriminal behaviour (Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber, 1998; Brame et al., 2001). Aswith most disorders, chronicity and severity of the problem is linked to poorintervention outcomes. There is an increasing body of literature exploring factorsthat influence the development of early conduct problems and one factor thatappears to be very important is parenting behaviour. For example, inconsistentdiscipline and coercive cycles of reinforcement (Patterson et al., 1992) have beenshown to be strongly associated with childrens conduct problems. Parentingbehaviour is also the primary focus in many programmes designed to helpchildren with conduct problems. Many randomized controlled trials show theseintervention programmes to be effective (Brestan and Eyberg, 1998; Sanders et al.,2000; Scott et al., 2001). However, some families are not helped by intervention;they may drop out, or show improvements that are not generalizable orsustainable (Kazdin, 1990; Taylor and Biglan, 1998). Further work is required toimprove the outcomes for young children with conduct problems (Webster-Stratton et al., 2001).Parental cognitions represent one mechanism that may influence the

    development of, and intervention for, childrens conduct problems. In theliterature on adult disorders the study of cognitions has been extremelyimportant in understanding and treating problems such as anxiety disorders(Clark, 1986; Wells, 1997). It has been suggested that understanding the roleof cognitions in parenting may help to improve outcomes of interventionprogrammes for young childrens conduct problems (Johnston, 1996; Peters et al.,2005). Cognitions are theoretically important in parenting (Olson et al., 2000) anda cognitive-behavioural model would suggest that parenting behaviours areaffected by the kind of cognitions parents have about their child. For example,when a parent believes their childs behaviour is deliberate, this may result indifferent responses compared to believing the same behaviour is accidental.These causal explanations for behaviours and outcomes are known asattributions, and parental attributions for childrens misbehaviour have beenstrongly associated with childrens conduct problems (Baden and Howe, 1992;Johnston and Freeman, 1997).Early studies investigating parental attributions were cross-sectional. Baden

    and Howe (1992) found that mothers of school-aged children with conductproblems believed that their childs misbehaviour was more intentional,global, stable and difficult to control. In addition, Johnston and colleaguesfound that parental attributions for oppositional child behaviours were morenegative than parental attributions for hyperactive behaviours, which inturn were more negative than parental attributions for non-problem beha-viours (Johnston and Freeman, 1997; Johnston and Patenaude, 1994; Johnstonet al., 1992).These cross-sectional studies do not allow the direction of influence between

    parental attributions and child conduct problems to be examined. More recentlongitudinal studies have been able to investigate this. For example, Nix et al.(1999) explored whether maternal attributions predicted later child conductproblems. They found that earlier maternal hostile attributions about pre-kindergarteners predicted later externalizing problems of the child, but onlyin school. Hastings and Rubin (1999) examined the opposite direction ofinfluence; whether child conduct problems predicted later maternal attributions.They found that for some families, child aggression predicted more maternalhostile attributions 2 years later. Both studies only examined one direction

    C. Wilson et al.110

    Copyright # 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Inf. Child Dev. 15: 109121 (2006)

  • of influence. Furthermore, they were not able to control for the predicted variableat the first time point. One study that measured both attributions andchild behaviour problems at two time points found that maternal aggressionwhen the child was between 7- and 9-years old predicted child attributions1215 months later (MacKinnon-Lewis et al., 2001). However, child aggressiontowards mother at time 1 did not predict the mothers attributions of intentat time 2, nor did maternal attributions of intent at time 1 predict child aggressionat time 2.It is therefore unclear from these studies how child conduct problems and

    parental attributions influence each other over time. Two of the studies reportedabove only looked at one direction of influence, and the study that looked atboth, did so in older children, and only examined the attributional dimensionof intent. There are compelling arguments for looking at how parentalattributions and child behaviour influence each other in young children. Parentalattributions are themselves affected by the age of the child (Cote and Azar,1997; Dix et al., 1986). Furthermore, many children who have difficulties withaggressiveness at 7 years also had problems when they were younger. Byexamining how parental attributions and child conduct problems influence eachother over time in pre-school children it is possible to explore these importantrelationships at a developmental stage when child conduct problems are not yetwell established.There are also compelling arguments for looking at a range of attributional

    dimensions. Joiner and Wagner (1996) found that there were robust associationsbetween child outcomes and attributions, for the attributional dimensionsstability and globality. They suggest that there may be support for dimension locusof control, but that this dimension has proven most difficult to measure.In order to examine how attributions affect the early development of childrens

    conduct problems, we carried out a longitudinal study of 60 mothers and their3-year-old children. By assessing child conduct problems and a range ofattributional dimensions at two time points, 1 year apart, possible bi-directionalrelationships between them could be clearly tested. Some researchers haveproposed that child conduct problems at time 1 will influence parentalattributions at time 2 (Geller and Johnston, 1995; Hastings and Rubin, 1999) asparents who have children with difficult-to-manage behaviours will becomeincreasingly more negative about their children as the behaviour persists oreven worsens. Other researchers have proposed that parental attributions attime 1 affect child conduct problems at time 2 (Nix et al., 1999; Slep and OLeary,1998), via their effects on parental behaviour. This direction of influence hassignificant implications for intervention. If maternal cognitions are influencingchild behaviour via their effect on maternal behaviour, then they would bean appropriate target for intervention themselves, in addition to targeting thematernal behaviour directly. This study tested both of these directions ofinfluence.To summarize, the study had the following objectives:

    1. to test whether mothers of children with higher conduct problem scores at age3 make more negative attributions at age 3 about the causes of their childsmisbehaviour (i.e. that it is due to more internal, global, stable factors);

    2. to test whether child conduct scores at age 3 predict maternal attributions atage 4, controlling for age 3 maternal attributions; and

    3. to test whether maternal attributions at age 3 predict child conduct scores atage 4, controlling for age 3 conduct scores.

    Maternal Attribution


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