Mothers' and fathers' negative responsibility attributions and perceptions of children's problem behavior

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<ul><li><p>Personal Relationships, 20 (2013), 719727. Printed in the United States of America.Copyright 2013 IARR; DOI: 10.1111/pere.12010</p><p>Mothers and fathers negative responsibilityattributions and perceptions of childrens problembehavior</p><p>JACKIE A. NELSON,a MARION OBRIEN,b SUSAN D. CALKINS,b</p><p>AND SUSAN P. KEANEb</p><p>aUniversity of Texas at Dallas and bUniversity of North Carolina at Greensboro</p><p>AbstractParents negative responsibility attributions about their childs misbehavior are related to a perception that the childhas more behavior problems. This study used a dyadic framework to explore how mothers and fathers attributionsrelate to their own perceptions and to their partners perceptions of the childs externalizing problems. Participantsincluded 102 couples interviewed when children were 7 years old. Results confirmed that mothers reported moreexternalizing behavior problems in their children than did fathers, and fathers of boys reported more child behaviorproblems than fathers of girls. Dyadic analyses suggested that parents negative responsibility attributions of thechilds behavior were associated with greater perceptions of child externalizing problems on behalf of parents andtheir partners.</p><p>Attributions, or interpretations of behavior,provide individuals with a way to makesense of their environments (Heider, 1958).With the ever-changing demands of parent-ing, parental attributions of childrens behav-ior are commonly utilized to interpret andunderstand childrens actions in a broadrange of situations. These beliefs are impor-tant to understand as they have been shownto be associated with parents responses totheir children (Daggett, OBrien, Zanolli,&amp; Peyton, 2000), childrens beliefs about</p><p>Jackie A. Nelson, School of Behavioral and Brain Sci-ences, University of Texas at Dallas; Marion OBrienand Susan D. Calkins, Department of Human Develop-ment and Family Studies, University of North Carolina atGreensboro; Susan P. Keane, Department of Psychology,University of North Carolina at Greensboro.</p><p>This research was supported by a National Instituteof Mental Health award (MH 58144). An earlier versionof this project was presented at the 2011 biennial meetingof the Society for Research in Child Development inMontreal, Quebec. The authors would like to thank theproject staff and the families who generously gave theirtime to participate in the study.</p><p>Correspondence should be addressed to Jackie A.Nelson, School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences,University of Texas at Dallas, 800 W. CampbellRoad GR41, Richardson, TX 75080, e-mail:Jackie.Nelson@utdallas.edu.</p><p>themselves (Azar, Siegel, &amp; Cote, 1993), andchildrens subsequent behavior (Nix et al.,1999; Slep &amp; OLeary, 1998).</p><p>The constructivist perspective on parentalbeliefs suggests that individuals create abelief system through their personal experi-ences (McGillicuddy-DeLisi &amp; Sigel, 1995).Parents experience being parented along withthe amount and quality of their experiencewith children influence the interpretations andresponses parents have to childrens behavior(Bugental &amp; Shennum, 1984). Many parentsdevelop an attribution style that preservesa positive view of their child, describingmisbehaviors as situation specific and outsidethe childs control (Dix, 1991; Gretarsson&amp; Gelfand, 1988). The opposite view, thatmisbehaviors are controllable, intentional,and stable, characterizes a negative attri-bution style (Bugental, Blue, &amp; Lewis,1990; Dix, 1991; Larrance &amp; Twentyman,1983; MacKinnon-Lewis, Lamb, Arbuckle,Baradaran, &amp; Volling, 1992).</p><p>Negative attributions regarding individu-als responsibility or accountability for theirbehaviors may be particularly relevant to theparenting context. Responsibility attributions</p><p>719</p></li><li><p>720 J. A. Nelson et al.</p><p>have been shown to be more directly related tobehavioral responses compared to attributionsof the cause or reason behind others behavior(Bradbury &amp; Fincham, 1990; Fincham, 1994;Graham &amp; Hoehn, 1995; VanOostrum &amp; Hor-vath, 1997; Willis &amp; Foster, 1990). Addition-ally, responsibility attributions are more likelyto be associated with emotional arousal, con-flict, and anger (Weiner, 1985). Parenting isan emotional experience (Dix, 1991), and thebelief that children misbehave intentionallywith a selfish motivation to annoy the parentis likely to increase parents emotional arousaland color parents perceptions of the childsbehavior.</p><p>One commonly studied example of the linkbetween attributions and perceptions of childbehavior in the parenting context is the cor-relation among parents negative attributionsand childrens normative behavior problems.In one study, mothers who reported nega-tive attributions regarding their school-agedchilds misbehavior were also more likely toreport that their child displayed more conductproblems (Baden &amp; Howe, 1992). An experi-mental manipulation of maternal responsibil-ity attributions for her childs misbehaviorconcluded that when experimenters changedthe attribution provided to mothers, the moth-ers affect, her behavior, and the childs affectsignificantly changed (Slep &amp; OLeary, 1998),suggesting that mothers and childrens emo-tions are somewhat dependent on maternalattributions. Bugental and Shennum (1984)suggest that this association is not limited toparents and their own children. The authorsfound that even when mothers with negativeattribution styles interacted with children theydid not know, they tended to behave in waysthat enhanced negative interactions and non-compliance.</p><p>Parent cognitions</p><p>This study examines parents subjective per-ceptions of problem behavior as a reflectionof their cognitive processes. The idea thatparental cognitions color how parents viewsituations with their children is well estab-lished. A negative cognitive framework iscommonly regarded as a condition that causes</p><p>parents to have an overall negative outlookon life and interpret situations and interac-tions with others as adverse (Bouhuys, Geerts,&amp; Mersch, 1997; Gollan, Pane, McCloskey,&amp; Coccaro, 2008; Matt, Vazquez, &amp; Camp-bell, 1992). A negative framework has beenrelated to more negative perceptions of chil-drens behavior problems and to the extentto which mothers and fathers perceptionsare in agreement with their partner (Johnston,1991). Negative attributions create a similarbias toward overly perceiving negativity inothers behavior. Mothers who were told thattheir child misbehaved voluntarily in a manip-ulated experiment reported feeling angrier andmore reactive than mothers who were toldtheir child was not to blame for misbehaving(Slep &amp; OLeary, 1998).</p><p>Understanding how cognitions, such asnegative responsibility attributions, relateto parent perceptions of problem behav-ior is important considering the fieldsheavy reliance on parent-report measures inresearch. The parent-report Child BehaviorChecklist (CBCL; Achenbach, 1991) hasbeen widely used within the United Statesand across 24 societies around the world(Rescorla et al., 2011) to operationalizechildrens externalizing behavior problems.Discrepancies in CBCL reports betweenfamily members have been found to be com-mon and predicted by individual and familyfunctioning (De Los Reyes &amp; Kazdin, 2006).Researchers can better understand reasonsbehind certain viewpoints or account forfactors influencing their research results whenthey are aware of how the reporter interpretsthe childs behavior and the effect negativeattributions may have on parents perceptions.</p><p>Influence of the partner</p><p>Aside from relating to ones own perceptions,parents cognitions are also likely relatedto their spouses perceptions. Close dyadicrelationships, such as a marriage, are char-acterized by the mutual exchange of cog-nitions, emotions, and behaviors (Campbell&amp; Kashy, 2002); therefore, a parents attri-butions and perceptions are best understoodin the context of his or her interdependent</p></li><li><p>Attributions and problem behavior 721</p><p>partner. Unfortunately, little research on par-ent attributions has included fathers, and theresults are mixed as to whether mothersand fathers typically differ in their attribu-tions for their childrens misbehavior. Forexample, Mills and Rubin (1990) found noattribution differences between parents in theirstudy of preschool-aged children, whereasChen, Seipp, and Johnston (2008) found thatmothers made more negative attributions fortheir school-aged childrens inattentive andimpulsive behavior than fathers. Findings onparents perceptions of childrens problembehavior are also complex, as a moderate tohigh correspondence has been found betweenmothers and fathers reports of externalizingbehavior on the CBCL (Duhig, Renk, Epstein,&amp; Phares, 2000), with mothers reporting ahigher severity level in symptoms than fathers(Schroeder, Hood, &amp; Hughes, 2010).</p><p>Although we are interested in examiningmean differences in mothers and fathersattributions and perceptions, the primary goalof the current study concerns how moth-ers and fathers beliefs are associated withone another. We are interested in whetherone parents attributions are related to theother parents perceptions, or what have beentermed crossover effects . Crossover effects,in addition to spillover effects that occurwhen a parents attributions relate to his orher own perceptions, are commonly found inresearch on the family system (e.g., Erel &amp;Burman, 1995; Nelson, OBrien, Blankson,Calkins, &amp; Keane, 2009). The examinationof spillover and crossover effects for moth-ers and fathers negative responsibility attri-butions and perceptions of childrens prob-lem behavior has not been explored previ-ously, but considering reported links betweenattributions and perceptions (Slep &amp; OLeary,1998) and the likelihood that interdependentpartners will influence each others cognitions(Campbell &amp; Kashy, 2002), both spillover andcrossover effects are probable. Spillover andcrossover effects are important to understand,as the relevance of a partners negative per-ceptions are rarely investigated or accountedfor in studies utilizing parent reports of childbehavior.</p><p>Child sex</p><p>A final goal of the current study is to examinechild sex. Sex is a salient child characteris-tic that is known to affect a childs role inthe family and interactions with parents (Mac-coby, 2003). A number of studies have shownthat parents make different attributions forboys versus girls behavior (e.g., Maniadaki,Sonuga-Barke, &amp; Kakouros, 2005; Parsons,Adler, &amp; Kaczala, 1982; Yee &amp; Eccles, 1988).One study found that parents believe that thecause of girls misbehavior is more dispo-sitional than boys (Gretarsson &amp; Gelfand,1988), and another found that parents per-ceived boys misbehavior to be more inten-tional than girls (Maniadaki et al., 2005).Similarly, parents perceptions of childrensexternalizing behavior have also been shownto differ for boys and girls, with parentstypically reporting more externalizing symp-toms among boys (Baillargeon et al., 2007;Rescorla et al., 2007).</p><p>This study</p><p>In this study, we explored mothers andfathers negative responsibility attributionsfor their school-aged childs minor misbe-haviors and their perceptions of the childsexternalizing behavior. We examined whetherparents negative responsibility attributionswere associated with their own perceptions,and their partners perceptions, of externaliz-ing behavior while also exploring the effectsof parent sex, child sex, and the interactionbetween the two. Although this researchquestion has not been examined previously,past findings lead us to predict that (a) moth-ers will make more negative responsibilityattributions and perceive more externalizingproblems than fathers, (b) both parentswill make more negative responsibilityattributions and perceive more externalizingproblems for boys than girls, (c) mothersand fathers attributions will relate to eachothers perceptions, and (d) for both parents,negative responsibility attributions will beassociated with more negative perceptionsof problem behavior. No specific hypotheseswere made regarding whether spillover or</p></li><li><p>722 J. A. Nelson et al.</p><p>crossover effects will depend on parent sexor child sex, or if three-way interactionsbetween parent sex, child sex, and parentattributions will emerge in predicting parentsperceptions of problem behavior.</p><p>Method</p><p>Participants</p><p>The participants in this study were a sub-sample of children taking part in an ongoinglongitudinal study of 447 families. Childrenand families were recruited through child daycare centers, the County Health Department,and the local Women, Infants, and Children(WIC) program in the Southeastern region ofthe United States. Of the 293 children whosefathers actively participated in the study,242 families (83%) participated at 7 yearsof age, when the data for the present studywere collected. There were no significant dif-ferences between families who participatedand those lost to attrition in terms of childsex, 2(1, N = 269)= .95, p = .33; ethnicity,2(3, N = 269)= 1.42, p = .70; or socio-economic status, t(255)= .53, p = .60.</p><p>Only two-parent families in which bothparents reported on their attributions wereincluded in the present analyses (n = 102 cou-ples). Included families were more likely to beEuropean American, 2(1, N = 293)= 11.92,p &lt; .01, and had a higher socioeconomic sta-tus, t(278)=3.70, p &lt; .01, than excludedfamilies (n = 191). In the final sample, 48%of the children were female, 81% were Euro-pean American, 13% were African American,and 6% were of multiple or other ethnicities.The median education level for mothers andfathers was a college degree; 9% of mothersand 10% of fathers were high school gradu-ates, 49% of mothers and 41% of fathers had acollege degree, and 20% of mothers and 15%of fathers held advanced degrees.</p><p>Procedure</p><p>When children were 7 years of age, theycame to the study site for two visits, duringwhich children participated in various tasksand mothers completed questionnaires andwere observed in interaction with the children.</p><p>At the completion of the second visit, motherswith partners living in the home were givena packet of questionnaires for the partnerto complete. Questionnaire data from bothmothers and fathers are used in this report.</p><p>Measures</p><p>Demographics</p><p>Mothers completed questionnaires to pro-vide demographic information, such as childssex and ethnicity, parent marital status, andincome and education for each parent.</p><p>Negative attributions</p><p>Mothers and fathers reported on the neg-ative responsibility attributions they makeregarding their childs mild misbehaviors withthe Attributional Style Measure for Parents(ASMP; OBrien &amp; Peyton, 2002). Parentswere asked to think of two recent situationsin which your child didnt do something youwanted done (such as picking up toys andclothes) even after you asked several times.Parents were then asked to indicate the extentto which they agreed on a 6-point scale withfour statements regarding the childs inten-tion and motivation in the situation (e.g., Mychild didnt do what I asked on purpose ratherthan unintentionally, and My child didnt dowhat I asked mainly just to annoy me). Neg-ative re...</p></li></ul>