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From Parent to Child to Parent…: Paths In and Out of Problem Behavior

Maternal sensitivity, parental harshness, and productive activity affected child behavior, but child behavior problems influenced parenting choices more so than vice versa, from middle childhood onward.

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  • N: 956 families
  • Subject Ages: 15 years
  • Location: 10 geographically separated sites from the NICHD data set
  • SES: Higher mean household income ($39,550 versus $33,570), almost 22% of families had an income-to-needs ratio of less than 2.0
  • Eligibility: All cases with a valid measure at age 15
  • Additional:
    • 81.4% Caucasian, 12% African American
    • 49.9% boys
    • Participant families were:
      • Less likely to be of minority status (18.6% versus 21.8%)
      • More likely to consist of the biological mother living with her husband (79.1% versus 71.1%)
      • Parents were more likely to have attended college (72.1% versus 60.9%)


  1. Reciprocal patterns of relations will emerge between externalizing behavior and the three aspects of parenting observed from infancy through adolescence, but the impact of parenting processes on externalizing behavior will diminish as children age.
  2. Cumulative effect with externalizing behavior will become increasingly stable.
  3. Maternal sensitivity during early and middle childhood will continue to exert an influence on externalizing behavior at age 15 via self-control, an alternative to the idea of a simple cumulative effect.
  4. Self-control will serve to mediate relations between parenting and externalizing problems at age 15.
  5. Monitoring at age 15 will show a negative relation to harshness at age 11 and externalizing at age 15.
  6. Higher levels of productive activity at home at age 11 will show a negative relation to externalizing behavior via its connection with monitoring, as it reflects higher levels of trust and communication between parent and child.

Variables Measured, Instruments Used

All assessments were taken at multiple age points to capture cumulative experience during particular developmental periods:

  • Opportunity for productive activity - the Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment Inventory (Caldwell and Bradley, 1984) at 15 months, 36 months, third grade and fifth grade
  • Parental harshness - the Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment Inventory (Caldwell & Bradley, 1984) items that tap expressions of anger, annoyance, physical punishment and intrusiveness to measure parental harshness
  • Maternal sensitivity - coded videos of 15-minute semi-structured interactions in which the mother and child played in two or three age-appropriate activities
  • Monitoring - mother report, 11-item questionnaire
  • Self-control - the Social Skills Rating Scale (SSRS; Gresham & Elliot, 1990), Self-control subscale
  • Externalizing behavior - the Child Behavior Checklist (Achenbach, 1992) mother and caregiver-teacher report form of the CBCL (Achenbach, 1997)




  1. Maternal sensitivity, parental harshness and productive activity are related to externalizing problems, but patterns of relations change from early childhood to middle childhood to adolescence with evidence suggesting that externalizing behavior influences parenting more than the reverse from middle childhood onward.
  2. Self-control measured during early adolescence partially mediated relations between maternal sensitivity and adolescent-reported externalizing behavior.
  3. Parental monitoring during adolescence was also related to externalizing behavior at age 15. Monitoring partially mediated the relation between externalizing behavior in early adolescence and externalizing at age 15.


  • Few instances of harshness at the level of maltreatment and a limited measure of harshness
  • About 30% attrition over the 15-year study
  • Relatively small proportion of minority and high-risk families
  • Missing data on measures, particularly teacher reports of externalizing behavior during early childhood
  • Not all of the key variables were equally stable. Most notable is the modest stability in parental harshness.