I hear it often: “This child is just not like my other children. She’s different.” OR, “He doesn’t seem to stop doing things that cause trouble, I don’t get it.”  Parents are frustrated and worried by children who seem out of control, unpredictable, or just unmanageable. How we react when we are frustrated and scared can make things even worse.

Psychology aims to explain behavior in order to change it.  We can look to research to understand what is happening and then devise treatments that target important processes. The Raising Safe Kids Program is consistent with research on aggressive behaviors in families.

A recent study was published about the differences among kids and parents that predicts more aggressive, disruptive, and defiant behavior in children. Turns out — those parents in my office are right! Different children have different reactions to the same parenting behavior. It also turns out that parents have a lot of power to change kids and override these individual differences.

A team of researchers (Stephen Erath, Mona El-Sheikh, Benjamin Hinnant, & E. Mark Cummings) published a paper (Skin Conductance Level Reacitivity Moderates the Association between Harsh Parenting and Growth in Child Externalizing Behavior) in Developmental Psychology this year on child fearlessness and harsh parenting that looked at how these characteristics effected child behavior problems over time. Skin conductance — sweaty palms — is an accepted measure of fear reactivity.  People with lower levels of reactivity are generally more fearless than people with higher reactivity. It is partially determined by genetics.

Kids with lower fearfulness are more likely to have problematic behavior. Kids with higher fearfulness are less likely to display defiant and aggressive behavior. Here is the kicker: over time if parents used verbally and physically harsh, coercive, angry, aggressive parenting techniques, boys were more likely to show more defiant and problematic behavior over time regardless of the child’s fearfulness. Sorry folks but his includes yelling and spanking and over-reactions. Boys and girls whose parents avoided harsh discipline techniques had a lower risk of problematic behavior throughout childhood.

The writers suggest that boys who react with stronger fear to start might be at lower risk for behavior problems BUT they also have more sensitivity to parental reactions. While this keeps the boys out of trouble initially, it might also lead to more frustration in the face of coercive parenting. Kids are VERY sensitive to being treating unfairly. This frustration over and over might shape the boys to develop a more callous response. The boys might get used to the harsh parental behaviors tune them out., and not care.

Something to keep in mind: parents feel frustrated and angry by children’s defiance — it  is NORMAL. Parents, however, need to find effective ways to manage their anger. I have written elsewhere about anger and managing anger. Parents need to find a path to respectful discipline that shows kids that they have choices in the world, that respect for everyone it the way to go. Most of us need support to do that.

Show respect, teach respect: teach for life! ACT_Raising Safe Kids.

Kelly M. Champion, PhD.