A new study has found that mothers with harsher parenting practices tend to have poorer executive functioning and are more prone to hostile attribution bias. The strength of these links depended on the authoritarian childrearing attitudes of these mothers. The study was published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
Executive function is a concept encompassing a number of the most complex cognitive processes involved in regulating one’s behavior. These include the ability to keep current activities and tasks in memory (to remember what one is doing and information necessary for that), the ability to suppress one’s own impulses that are irrelevant for the current goal, being able to adjust one’s behavior when conditions change, and others.
These abilities are of key importance for many important behaviors such as academic achievement, health behaviors, and social behavior in general. Previous studies have indicated that there might be a link between poorer executive functioning of mothers and harsher parenting practices. Harsh parenting refers to the proneness of the parent to act coercively and have negative emotional expressions directed at the child such as verbal aggression (yelling or name calling) and physical aggression (spanking or hitting).
Other studies have shown that authoritarian attitudes about childrearing are also linked to harsher parenting practices. Authoritarian childrearing attitudes refer to the beliefs that children should obediently comply to all expectations from authority figures, along with a strong endorsement of strict, controlling caregiving behaviors. Such parents are more likely reject the child, use corporal punishment, and to be cold and unsupportive towards the child.
Study author Kirby Deater-Deckard and his colleagues hypothesized that lower executive function would be strongly associated with harsher parenting in mothers, particularly among mothers holding authoritarian childrearing attitudes and prone to hostile attribution bias. Hostile attribution bias is a tendency to interpret the behavior of others as hostile, particularly when it is not.
“There is increased interest in psychology and neuroscience in the ways in which parents’ skills and capacities to self-regulate their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, can influence their positive and negative parenting behaviors toward their children,” explained Deater-Deckard, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at UMass Amherst.
“My PhD student, Christina Bertrand, and I were curious about a recent finding from a study of mothers examining how the impact of mothers’ executive functioning might be associated with their parenting behaviors differently depending on their prevailing childrearing attitudes regarding the authority of parents and other adults in children’s lives. So, we wanted to see if we could replicate that study, and extend that prior study by also examining parental ‘attribution bias’ as well as authoritarian childrearing attitudes.”
They analyzed data from 156 mothers of children aged between 3 and 7 years. 50% of the children of these mothers were girls. Age of mothers in the study ranged between 21 and 52 years. 36% of the mothers were single and 79% identified as white.
Mothers completed assessments of childrearing attitudes (the Parental Modernity Scale), parenting attribution bias (the Parenting Possibilities Questionnaire), executive function (the Stroop Color Word Task, Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, 2 subscales from the Adult Temperament Questionnaire – Short Form), and harsh parenting (the Parent Feelings Questionnaire and observer ratings of behavior).
The researchers found that authoritarian attitudes and hostile attribution bias were positively related to each other and negatively related to executive functioning. Harsh parenting was positively related to authoritarian attitudes and hostile attribution bias, and negatively related to executive functioning. Additionally, lower socioeconomic status was related to worse executive functioning and greater authoritarian attitudes and hostile attribution bias.
When relationships between these factors were considered together, results showed that more pronounced authoritarian attitudes strengthened the link between executive functioning and harsh parenting. The same effect was found for hostile attribution, but the effect was only marginally significant.
“Like the previous study, our results showed that there is a link between weaker executive function and harsher, more negative parenting for mothers – but only for those with more authoritarian attitudes and those who held internal attributions about child misbehavior,” Deater-Deckard told PsyPost.
“Having good self-regulation of attention, memory and impulses is critically important to nonreactive, calm parenting in the face of many challenges including challenging child behavior. This appears to be particularly true for parents who emphasize authority, and attribute intention to child misbehavior. The findings suggest that targeting reduction in authoritarian childrearing attitudes and orienting parents to situational explanations for child misbehavior, may mitigate some of the potentially problematic effects of having weaker cognitive self-regulation on harsh reactive parenting behavior.”
The study provides a valuable contribution to scientific knowledge about psychological underpinnings of different parenting practices. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the sample consisted solely of mothers and did not include the effects of fathers, their views and parental practices. Only mothers of preschool children were included in the study, while some of the results were dependent on age of the child. It is possible that results on mothers of older children might not be the same. Finally, the study design does not allow any cause-and-effect conclusions to be drawn from the results.
The study, “Maternal executive function, authoritarian attitudes, and hostile attribution bias as interacting predictors of harsh parenting”, was authored by Christina Bertrand, Martha Ann Bell, and Kirby Deater-Deckard.