It is well documented that psychosocial stressors constitute a significant, pervasive risk for children's mental health problems (e.g., Grant et al., 2006
) and that coping processes mediate and moderate the relation between stressors and mental health problems (e.g., Compas, Connor-Smith, Saltzman, Thomsen, & Wadsworth, 2001
). The literature suggests that engagement coping efforts, or efforts oriented toward the stressor or one's emotional reaction, are generally associated with reduced mental health problems, whereas disengagement coping efforts, or efforts oriented away from the stressor or one's emotional reaction, are typically associated with higher mental health problems (Compas et al., 2001
). Coping efficacy, the belief that one can deal with the demands of and emotions caused by stressful situations, has also been shown to negatively relate to mental health problems and to mediate the relations between active coping and mental health problems (Sandler, Tein, Mehta, Wolchik, & Ayers, 2000
Identification of factors that affect the development of coping processes in childhood has implications for both developmental psychology and prevention science. An understanding of linkages between factors that are potentially modifiable and coping processes has particular significance for the design of interventions for at-risk populations that are exposed to elevated levels of stressors, such as children from divorced families, parentally bereaved children and youth living in violent communities.
Although peers exert increasing influence on development starting in middle childhood, the family arguably is the most powerful context in which coping socialization occurs (Kliewer, Sandler, & Wolchik, 1994
; Power, 2004
). Kliewer and her colleagues (1994)
discussed three ways in which the family may influence coping processes: coaching, modeling, and aspects of the family context such as parent-child relationship quality and family interaction patterns. The current study focused on the links between two aspects of the family context, mother-child relationship quality and effective discipline, and children's active coping efforts, avoidant coping efforts and coping efficacy. Active and avoidant coping efforts reflect aspects of engagement and disengagement coping respectively (Sandler et al., 2000
; Smith et al., 2006
Children who have warm, positive relationships with their mothers may be more likely to use more active coping and less avoidant coping and have higher levels of coping efficacy than children with less positive relationships for several reasons. First, positive relationships may promote a sense of security (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters & Wall, 1978
) which may reduce the threat of stressors (Gunnar, 2000
; Kliewer et al., 1994
), leading to a greater propensity to use active rather than avoidant coping efforts. Second, children who have positive relationships with their mothers may feel comfortable using mothers as a resource to solve problems, which may lead to more active coping and less avoidant coping. Third, positive emotions generated through contact with highly accepting mothers may counter negative emotions that interfere with active coping efforts. Fourth, high quality mother-child relationships likely include opportunities for instruction in and reinforcement of adaptive coping efforts, which in turn may increase coping efficacy (Causey & Dubow, 1993
High levels of consistent and effective discipline may promote adaptive coping processes by enhancing children's sense of the predictability of their environments (Kliewer et al., 1994
; Parkes, 1984
). The consistent occurrence of expected consequences for misbehaviors may promote a sense of control, which could lead to higher levels of active coping and coping efficacy and lower levels of avoidant coping (Skinner & Wellborn, 1994
). Also, a consistent, predictable environment may foster evaluation of the effectiveness of coping efforts (Kliewer et al., 1994
). By creating an environment in which children evaluate their coping efforts and recognize coping successes and failures, consistent, effective discipline may enhance their coping efficacy.
A number of studies have examined links between aspects of the family environment and children's coping efforts (see Power, 2004
for a review). Overall, evidence shows that factors such as parental warmth, acceptance, support, family cohesion and firm rule enforcement are positively associated with engagement efforts and negatively associated with disengagement efforts. In contrast, very few researchers have examined links between parenting and children's coping efficacy. The limited research suggests that maternal support, paternal support, and maternal consistent discipline are positively associated with coping efficacy (Brook et al., 2002
; Smith et al., 2006
As Power (2004)
noted, the literature on the relations between parenting and children's coping processes has increased markedly in the last few years. However, nearly all the research has been cross-sectional. To our knowledge, longitudinal designs have been used in only two studies. Studying children with spina bifida and matched controls, McKernon et al. (2001)
found that maternal responsiveness, paternal responsiveness, and family cohesion each predicted problem-focused coping two years later for both groups of children. Neither maternal nor paternal demandingness predicted subsequent coping. In a sample of adolescents, Johnson and Pandina (1991)
found that parental hostility positively predicted the use of drugs and alcohol to cope and emotional outbursts three years later. The prospective relations between parental warmth and punishments of a psychological nature were not significant. These findings provide evidence of a longitudinal relation between parenting and children's coping efforts. However, the generalizability of the findings is limited because McKernon et al. (2001)
used a very specific sample and Johnson and Pandina (1991)
used a coping measure that included behaviors such as emotional outbursts that are often viewed as indicators of adjustment problems.
The current study used data from the New Beginnings Program (NBP), a randomized experimental trial of a preventive intervention for divorced families, to examine the relations between program-induced changes in parenting and children's coping processes. This randomized trial provides a unique opportunity to experimentally test hypothesized pathways that may affect coping processes. In a passive prospective correlational study, relations between parenting and coping could be accounted for by third variables that are shared by both, such as shared genes between the parent and child. A randomized trial allows a test of whether experimentally-induced changes in parenting account for experimentally-induced changes in coping processes, thus strengthening the causal inference between these variables (Cole & Maxwell, 2003
The NBP is a theory-based preventive intervention designed to improve children's post-divorce mental health problems. The conceptual model underlying our research on the prevention of post-divorce problems combines elements from a person-environment transactional framework and a risk and protective factor model. Derived from epidemiology (Institute of Medicine, 1994
), the risk and protective factor model posits that the likelihood of mental health problems is affected by exposure to risk factors and the availability of protective resources. Person-environment transactional models posit that dynamic person-environment processes underlie individual development across time. Aspects of the social environment affect the development of problems and competencies in an individual, which in turn influence the social environment and development of competencies and problems at later developmental stages (Sameroff, 2000
Cummings, Davies and Campbell's (2000)
cascading pathway model integrates these two models into a developmental framework. From this perspective, stressful events, such as divorce, can lead to an unfolding of failures to resolve developmental tasks and increase susceptibility to mental health problems and impairment in developmental competencies. Parenting is viewed as playing a central role in facilitating children's successful adaptation, and the skills and resources developed in successful resolution of earlier developmental tasks are important tools for managing future challenges. In terms of the current study, this framework suggests that parenting is an important resource facilitating the use of adaptive coping processes in the post-divorce period, which in turn may lead to more positive outcomes over time.
Two randomized trials of the NBP tested a program for custodial mothers (Wolchik et al., 1993
). The second trial also tested whether a child component strengthened program effects by comparing the mother program only to a dual-component program that included a mother program and a child program. Analyses in both trials indicated that participation in the mother program significantly reduced child mental health problems and improved parenting at post-test compared to the control condition. The dual component condition did not produce additive effects on coping processes or mental health outcomes at post-test. Neither program improved active coping, avoidant coping or coping efficacy relative to the control condition at post-test. The child component led to few additive effects on other putative mediators and no additive effects on mental health outcomes at 6-month or 6-year follow-up (Wolchik et al., 2000
Thus, in the second trial, the two active conditions were combined to provide a more parsimonious view of the program effects at the 6-year follow-up. At this follow-up, positive program effects occurred on a range of outcomes including internalizing and externalizing problems, symptoms of mental disorder, diagnosis of mental disorder, alcohol use, drug use, number of sexual partners, grade point average and self-esteem. For several effects, benefits were greater for those with higher baseline risk (Dawson-McClure, Sandler, Wolchik, & Millsap, 2004
; Wolchik et al., 1993
The present study examined whether intervention-induced changes in mother-child relationship quality and effective discipline at post-test led to short-term (6 months) and long-term (6 years) increases in active coping and coping efficacy, and short-term and long-term decreases in avoidant coping. Gender differences were examined; however, given the limited, inconsistent nature of the research on this topic, hypotheses were not made.
This study advances the research on the relation between parenting and children's coping in three ways. First, the use of a randomized, experimental design strengthens inferences about the causal nature of relations between parenting and coping over those that can be drawn from previous work which has been cross-sectional and correlational. Second, the sample is comprised of youth who had experienced parental divorce, a transition that occurs to 1.5 million youth in the U.S. each year (National Center for Health Statistics, 1995
) and has been shown to elevate the risk for multiple problems across the life span (e.g., Amato, 2001
; Chase-Lansdale, Cherlin, & Kiernan, 1995
). Thus, the findings have implications for promoting the functioning of a large group of at-risk youth. Third, by examining short-term and long-term relations between mother-child relationship quality and effective discipline and three types of coping processes, this study addresses the possibility of differential contributions of these dimensions of parenting to various aspects of coping across developmental periods.