The association between negative maternal attributions and child conduct problems is well established in correlational studies. However, little is known about how these variables influence each other over time. The present study examined patterns of prediction over time between maternal attributions and pre-school conduct problems. Sixty mothers and their 3-year-old children with a range of levels of conduct problems were interviewed when the child was just 3, and then again when the child was just 4. Childhood conduct problems were assessed using the parental account of childhood symptoms and parental attributions were assessed using a modification of Walker's Parental Attribution Questionnaire. Results indicate that even as young as age 3, child conduct problems are associated with negative maternal attributions. In longitudinal analyses, children's conduct problems at age 3 predicted mothers' attributions at age 4, but mothers' attributions did not predict children's conduct problems over the same time period. The data are consistent with the notion that negative attributions may be a result, rather than a cause, of having a difficult-to-manage child. This has implications for current proposed mechanisms that link maternal attributions and child conduct problems, and thus for interventions for these problems. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.