Poor parenting causes boys, but few girls, to be particularly prone to bad behavior, a new study suggests.
The link between early parent-child relationships and future aggressive behavior held up even when the researchers accounted for socio-economic classes.
As for why there was a gender difference, the researchers say girls might just react differently to poor parenting, holding in their feelings rather than acting out. And while some might cry genetics and overall personality of a child as the cause for the poor parent-child relationship, the study team says home environment plays a greater role. Even so, they do cut parents slack saying it's not always their fault.
Since the 1960s, studies linking parent-child attachment with later well-being have been tarnished, hailed and then contradicted once again. But now, an analysis of 69 studies, involving nearly 6,000 children, may have definitive evidence of a correlation between school-age misconduct and attachment style in the first years of life.
An attachment style is the way "a child seeks comfort or support when they are stressed in some way," explained lead researcher Pasco Fearon of the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.
Securely attached babies and toddlers cry out or become visibly upset when stressed and turn to a caregiver for comfort. They use the parent as a "secure base," a place for emotional repairs and confidence tune-ups before zooming back out to explore the world. This type of coping strategy is optimal for development, psychologists think.
The study also looked at two insecure styles of attachment. "Avoidant" kids in their second year of life hide their distress and cope solo, rather than turn to their parents for comfort. Toddlers suffering from "disorganized attachment" seem to both want, and not want, their parents. They will, for example, run toward a caregiver only to freeze before reaching him or her.
Abused and neglected children often exhibit disorganized attachment. And babies of parents that overly stress independence tend to become avoidant. But even more moderate and common ways of parenting, such as being particularly harsh or inconsistent, can give rise to insecure attachment styles, Fearon said.
Sons vs. daughters
Gender strongly influences how attachment style affects later behavior. While all kids are aggressive sometimes, insecurely attached boys are especially likely to kick others, disobey and be generally destructive, the study found. Girls, however, are unlikely to become brutes no matter their relationship with their parents.
"Boys challenge parents more than girls, pushing parental boundaries, which may cause parenting style to play a larger role (in a boy's upbringing)," Fearon said.
It is not that girls are immune to poor parenting. They might just react differently. In general, while boys tend to act out, girls are more likely to turn feelings inward, resulting in depression, anxiety or social withdrawal – a difference we can blame on both biology and social modeling, Fearon said. The study focused on aggressive behaviors, such as hitting and yelling, rather than more subtle emotional disorders.
Bad parents vs. impoverished ones
Poor and well-off kids were equally likely to be little hoodlums when parenting was sub-par, the study found.
Extreme poverty, however, may be a special case, Fearon said, as previous studies have shown abject poverty to be a significant risk factor for aggressive behavior.
Taken together, the findings highlight the importance of emotional provisions once basic needs have been met.
While it is possible that a baby's innate personality influences the type of attachment style he or she develops, research strongly suggests that the home environment plays the greater role, Fearon said.
"But this is not about blaming the parents," Fearon added. "There may be many reasons why parents find it difficult to provide a consistent, warm environment – and all parents have difficulty sometimes."
As a society, it may be in our best interest to support parents so that they are less distracted by other concerns and more focused on parenting, he said.
If parenting improves – even if it is well past the toddler stage – things for the child will also change for the better, Fearon said.
The study is published in the March/April issue of the journal Child Development.
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Robin Nixon is a former staff writer for Live Science. Robin graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Neuroscience and Behavior and pursued a PhD in Neural Science from New York University before shifting gears to travel and write. She worked in Indonesia, Cambodia, Jordan, Iraq and Sudan, for companies doing development work before returning to the U.S. and taking journalism classes at Harvard. She worked as a health and science journalist covering breakthroughs in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology for the lay public, and is the author of "Allergy-Free Kids; The Science-based Approach To Preventing Food Allergies," (Harper Collins, 2017). She will attend the Yale Writer’s Workshop in summer 2023.