The development of externalizing problems has been linked to both heredity and environmental factors (Dodge, Coie, & Lynam, in press
). In regard to the latter set of influences, one of the more consistent findings is that parental warmth and support are associated with relatively low levels of children’s externalizing problems (Caspi et al., 2004
; Rothbaum & Weisz, 1994
; see Dodge et al., in press
). Similarly, parental expressions of positive emotions in the home and in children’s presence (albeit not necessarily directed at the child) have been related to low levels of externalizing problems (Eisenberg et al., 2001b
; see Halberstadt, Crisp, & Eaton, 1999
Some investigators (Eisenberg, Cumberland, & Spinrad, 1998
; Gottman, Katz, & Hooven, 1997
) have suggested that one reason for the association between parental warmth/positive expressivity and children’s externalizing behavior is through its effects on children’s emotion-related regulation, which includes the modulation of emotion-related physiological responses, motivational states, felt experience, and associated behaviors. According to this view, warm, positive parents rear better-regulated children, who are, in turn, less likely to experience anger or frustration or display externalizing problems such as aggression that stem from these emotional responses.
Effortful control (EC), an aspect of temperament defined as “the efficiency of executive attention, including the ability to inhibit a dominant response and/or to activate a subdominant response, to plan, and to detect errors,” is believed to play a fundamental role in the regulation of emotion (Rothbart & Bates, in press
) and often is used as an index of this capacity (Eisenberg, Fabes, Guthrie, & Reiser, 2000
). EC includes the abilities to voluntarily focus and shift attention and to inhibit or initiate behavior—processes used to modulate both internal emotion-related experience and the overt expression of emotion. The purpose of this study was to examine the hypothesis that EC mediates the relation between parental positive expressivity and children’s externalizing problems using a prospective 3-wave longitudinal design in which parenting, children’s EC, and children’s externalizing problems were assessed at three time points (with 2-year intervals).
Although EC is believed to have a temperamental, and hence, partly genetic and constitutional basis, most theorists believe that EC, and emotion regulation more generally, are shaped by experience in the social world, including interactions with parents (Campos, Campos, & Barrett, 1989
; Gottman et al., 1997
; Rothbart & Bates, in press
). Consistent with this view, Goldsmith, Buss, and Lemery (1997)
found that the environment contributed the majority of the variance in three 8-year-old twins’ EC.
Warm, supportive parenting, in contrast to harsh parenting, is likely to foster EC, and hence broader emotion-related self-regulation, in multiple ways. Hoffman (2000)
has argued that parents’ hostile or punitive negative expressivity is likely to produce affective overarousal in their children, which could undercut regulation and learning in the specific context. When children are overaroused, they are likely to have difficulties focusing and/or shifting their attention as needed, and their developing attentional and behavioral self-regulation skills may be compromised. For example, negatively aroused children are less likely to take advantage of parental attempts to scaffold their emerging attentional and behavioral regulatory skills (e.g., through joint attention in the early years; Raver & Leadbeater, 1995
). Similarly, parental negativity is likely to elicit negative emotions in children, and as Blair (2002
, p. 119) has argued, “young children characterized by negative emotionality are likely to experience difficulty in the application of higher order cognitive processes simply because their emotional responses do not call for reflective planning and problem solving, and these skills are underused and consequently under-developed” (also see Raver, 1996
). In contrast, when parents are warm and supportive, children are unlikely to be overaroused and are better able to respond to parental efforts to focus their attention and guide their behavior. This view is consistent with Vygotsky’s (1978)
view that cognitive skills are socially constructed through interactions with supportive, responsive adults.
Secondly, consistent with the arguments of Dix (1991)
and Grusec and Goodnow (1994)
, children are likely to be more disposed to process their parents’ messages, internalize parents’ requests for desirable behavior (e.g., inhibiting undesirable behavior and paying attention), and control their emotions and behaviors when their parents are positive and supportive rather than negative. Thus, they may be more motivated
, as well as better able, to attend to and learn from interactions with, and scaffolding provided by, warm parents. Moreover, warm, positive parents are likely to evoke positive emotion in their children. Because positive mood promotes creativity and flexibility in thinking and problem solving (Fredickson, 2001
; Isen & Daubman, 1984
; Isen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987
), it is likely to foster EC (which is viewed as flexible in its use and as involving higher order cognitive abilities) and active attempts to regulate. In addition, because positive affect facilitates the processing of self-relevant information (Trope & Pomerantz, 1998
) and broadens attention (Derryberry & Tucker, 1994
; Fredickson, 2001
), positive affect induced by positive parents may enhance children’s capacity to modulate their own behavior and affect.
In addition, parents who express relatively high levels of positive emotion and are supportive are likely to model constructive ways to manage stress and relationships, including the regulation of emotional responses to stress (Power, 2004
) and inappropriate behavior (Halberstadt et al., 1999
). Moreover, they may facilitate children’s regulation by promoting the predictability of the environment (Brody & Ge, 2001
) and by protecting children from exposure to potentially stressful events (Power, 2004
Parents’ warmth and positive expressivity may also be linked to children’s regulation and externalizing behavior because of its effects on the quality of the parent–child relationship. Parental warmth and positive expressivity have been linked to a secure attachment (Contreras, Kerns, Weimer, Gentzler, & Tomich, 2000
), and this security is believed to foster regulated behavior (Cummings & Davies, 1996
), in part because the child has greater psychological resources for dealing with negative emotions and events. In addition, children with more secure attachments are likely to be better at understanding others’ emotions (e.g., Laible & Thompson, 1998
), are less prone to negative emotion than insecurely attached children (Kochanska, 2001
), and are relatively mature in the development of conscience (Laible & Thompson, 2002
), all of which could result in greater EC of behavior and lower levels of antisocial behavior.
There is some initial evidence consistent with the suggestion that children’s regulation (including EC) at least partially mediates the relation of parental emotional expressivity in the family to children’s adjustment. Researchers have found an association between maternal responsivity to infants’ emotional cues and infants’ use of self-regulatory behaviors (Cohn & Tronick, 1983
; Gable & Isabella, 1992
), mothers’ reported positive expressivity in the family and higher levels of toddlers’ self-soothing behavior (Garner, 1995
), and maternal acceptance/support and children’s successful coping (Hardy, Power, & Jaedicke, 1993
; Kliewer, Fearnow, & Miller, 1996
) or self-regulation (Brody & Ge, 2001
). Moreover, parents who are accepting of children’s emotions and are supportive in regard to encouraging them to talk about emotions tend to rear children who are relatively able to modulate their internal arousal and down-regulate as required (Gottman et al., 1997
). Furthermore, a composite index of adult-reported and observed regulation has been related to parents’ positive expression of emotion in the family and with their child (Eisenberg, Gershoff, et al., 2001
, Eisenberg, Valiente, et al., 2003
Also consistent with the mediation hypothesis (i.e., parenting → children’s EC → children’s externalizing problems), investigators frequently have found that better regulated children (including those higher in EC) are better adjusted than their less regulated peers (e.g., Eisenberg, Cumberland, et al., 2001
; Kochanska & Knaack, 2003
; NICHD, 2003
; see Rothbart & Bates, in press
). Children who can modulate their negative emotions and inhibit the behaviors associated with those emotions would be expected to be less emotionally aroused and more appropriate in their expression of negative emotions, as well as more likely to comply with adults’ expectations.
Only a few investigators have explicitly examined regulation as a mediator between parental warmth or positive expressivity and children’s adjustment. Brody and Ge (2001)
assessed parental nurturance/support versus negativity and found that supportive parenting predicted children’s self-control at two points in time; children’s self-control, in turn, was negatively related to children’s problems with adjustment (hostility, depression, and low self-esteem). The data did not support the possibility that children’s self-regulation predicted later parenting. Although not assessing family expressivity per se, Gottman et al. (1997)
found that parents who were supportive in regard to encouraging the appropriate expression of emotion and coaching children about their emotions had children who were relatively high in regulation and, in turn, low in aggression. Gottman et al. did not, however, find a relation between children’s regulation and parental scaffolding/praising (at least when other variables were controlled in a structural model). Although the NICHD Childcare Network (2003)
found that impulsivity (errors of commission on a reaction test) mediated the relation of family environment (including quality of the home environment, maternal sensitivity, and maternal cognitive stimulation) to externalizing problems, they did not find support for sustained attention (low levels of errors of omission, which likely tap regulation) as a mediator (although they were significantly correlated with low levels of externalizing problems). Eisenberg et al. (Eisenberg, Gershoff, et al., 2001
, Eisenberg, Valiente, et al. 2003
), using both concurrent data and data from two time points that were 2 years apart, found a pattern of results consistent with the hypothesis that children’s EC mediated the negative relation between parental positive expressivity (with the child and in the family) and children’s externalizing problems. However, in the second assessment, those findings were nonsignificant when controlling for prior levels of the variables in structural equation modeling and were significant only in regression analyses (when controlling for initial levels of externalizing problems). Moreover, this analysis involved only two time points, so some variables in the mediational sequence were assessed concurrently, and thus the estimation of mediated effect may be biased (Cole & Maxwell, 2003
Brody and Ge’s (2001)
study was the only study that we located in which two of the three variables (parenting and regulation, but not adjustment) were assessed at three different times (1 year apart). However, in this study, indicators of adjustment included depression, low self-esteem, and hostility or indices of alcohol use, not externalizing problems, and initial levels of adjustment were not controlled in the analyses. It is possible that findings vary for different indices of adjustment; indeed, EC seems to be more strongly related to low levels of externalizing problems than internalizing problems (Eisenberg, Cumberland, et al., 2001
). Moreover, bidirectional, across-time relations between parenting and children’s regulation were not tested simultaneously. Cole and Maxwell (2003)
suggested that the optimal way to test mediation is to use at least three points in time and to include omitted paths (e.g., the child-driven paths in a socialization model) in one version of the model. In addition, the participants in the Brody and Ge study were in early adolescence; we know of no study assessing bidirectional relations (across time) among parents’ warmth/positivity, children’s regulation, and children externalizing problems in younger children. It is possible that regulation is a more important mediator of parenting in adolescence than in middle childhood because of heightened negative conflict between parent and children in adolescence (Collins & Steinberg, in press
) and/or because of the emergence of externalizing problems in adolescence for some youth (see Dodge et al., in press
). Alternatively, because EC develops at a relatively fast pace in the earlier years and is fairly well established by age 4 (Posner & Rothbart, 1998
), parental effects on regulation may be relatively stable by age 5. Moreover, parents’ positivity may have a stronger influence on children’s regulation at a younger than at an older school age because of a decline of interactions between parent and child with age.
In the present study, we examined whether children’s emotion-related regulation mediated the relation between parental warmth/positive expressivity and externalizing problems using three points in time, each two years apart. The sample in this study was different from the sample used in two prior tests of the relation of parental positive expressivity to children’s regulation and adjustment (Eisenberg, Gershoff, et al., 2001
, Eisenberg, Valiente, et al., 2003
). We hoped to replicate the relations of parental positive expressivity to EC and adjustment obtained with that sample, but using both an older and more normative sample than the at-risk sample (for externalizing and internalizing problems) in the other studies and 3 waves of data (rather than concurrent or 2-wave data). It is quite possible that parental warmth/positive expressivity has effects on children’s EC and social functioning in the preschool and elementary school years, but not in adolescence (e.g., because of habituating to the level of these variables or because of the heightened importance of other influences such as peers). Alternatively, the influence of parental warmth/positive expressivity on adolescents’ regulation and adjustment may be because of either the consistency of its effects on youth at younger ages or the continuing (as well as past) influence of this aspect of parenting on adolescents’ regulation and adjustment.
We examined not only the hypothesized role of regulation as a mediator of the relation between parenting and externalizing behavior, but also if regulation predicted parenting across time. We expected positive parenting to predict higher regulation; we also thought that regulation might predict positive parenting across time (as it has for punitive parenting; Eisenberg et al., 1999
). We expected to obtain these relations despite considerable stability in each of the three major constructs (i.e., parenting, regulation, and externalizing problems) over time. Such a pattern of relations would suggest that associations among these variables are not thoroughly established in early childhood. Although we recognize that even structural equation modeling cannot prove causality, it can be used to test the plausibility of causal associations, especially when the data are longitudinal and when the key variables are tested at three or more time points.
Finally, we examined whether children’s sex, age, and family socioeconomic status (SES) moderated the pattern of relations. The direct relation of family or parental expressiveness to child outcomes often varies with the sex of the child and the dependent measure (e.g., Boyum & Parke, 1995
). However, sex did not moderate the pattern of relations in previous studies (Eisenberg, Gershoff, et al., 2001
, Eisenberg, Valiente, 2003
) and parental positivity is expected to foster regulation for both sexes.
Although EC increases in the school years (Murphy, Eisenberg, Fabes, Shepard, & Guthrie, 1999
), we did not expect the relations of interest to vary in strength for children varying only a few years in age (tests of moderation by age assess differences in patterns because of the age of the child at a given assessment, not across assessments), and no moderation was found for children in early elementary school in another study of parental expressivity, children’s regulation, and children’s adjustment (Eisenberg, Gershoff, et al., 2001
, Eisenberg, Valiente, et al., 2003
). Finally, SES was examined as a moderator. SES was not expected to affect the pattern of relations between the parenting and child variables because relations among socialization, children’s regulation, and their adjustment in lower SES samples often have been similar to those found in higher SES samples (Raver, 2002
). Nonetheless, relations of parenting to regulation occasionally have been found to be stronger in more disadvantaged populations, particularly in studies of young children (see Dodge et al., in press
; Raver, 2004
), and relations between parenting and externalizing problems sometimes vary across SES or racial groups (Dodge et al., in press