Infants and toddlers whose parents are hostile toward them are far more likely to have behavioral problems during early school years, researchers concluded.
Michael Lorber, now a researcher at New York University, was the lead author along with Byron Egeland of the University of Minnesota published their findings Tuesday in the journal Child Development
Harsh treatment in the early years is very predictive of later kinds of anti-social behavior, Egeland said.
Egeland says the research is crucial, because it has shown anti-social behavior has a snowball effect.
Egeland and Lorber studied 267 mothers whose demographic placed them at high risk for their children developing conduct problems in school. Many of the mothers were young and fell below the poverty line, and all of them were raising their first child.
The researchers observed and tracked the interactions of each mother-child pair at home. They noted the quality and frequency of so-called negative interactions such as angry yelling, belittling and hitting. As they suspected, children of mothers who resorted to angry yelling and hitting as punishments exhibited more anti-social behaviors by ages 5 and 6, as reported by the kindergarten teachers who they interviewed for the study.
Egeland believes toddlers who were infants in a hostile home environment learn to reciprocate anti-social behavior at home by 2 years old. From there, what the authors call mutually negative toddler interaction continues.
Interventions may be possible to break this negative cycle. The National Institute of Mental Health funded a project called Steps Toward Enjoyable Effective Parenting (STEEP) on a trial basis and saw some success, Egeland said. In STEEP, first-time mothers took a class during their third trimester of pregnancy.
Even with an intervention like STEEP, there could still be barriers to breaking the cycle of negative parenting and anti-social behavior. Egeland noted some of his study participants had drug abusing boyfriends, making for an even worse home environment.
Some STEEP-like programs have seen success, but Egeland said in most urban areas with the highest concentration of high-risk families, there is not enough funding provide access to those who would reap the greatest benefit.
They just don't have the resources to go in and get help when they need it, he said.