Understanding how it is that problems in mental health and functioning are transmitted from one generation to the next greatly enhances our ability to identify mechanisms that may be well suited for modification through prevention and intervention efforts. In this month's issue, there is a theme regarding the role of parenting and home environments in the development of psychopathology and resilience in childhood. Two of the papers (Kochanska et al.; Beck & Shaw) focus on parenting behavior and children's development, and four others (Dixon et al., parts 1 and 2; Yirmiya & Shaked; Gotlib et al.) address the inter-generational transmission of psychopathology and problems in parenting. The papers are concerned with a broad range of parenting behaviors (from abuse to warmth and responsiveness) and child outcomes such as aggressive conduct problems, autism, and liability for affective disorders.
Kochanska and her colleagues describe longitudinal research in which they have been examining mother–child mutually responsive orientation (MRO), a fundamental component of the parent–child relationship. MRO represents the reciprocal, cooperative, co-responsive behavior seen in nearly all parent–child interaction that provides the foundation for effective socialization. Though children are capable of engaging in sustained mutuality with a parent from infancy, dyads vary dramatically in the extent to which they show this pattern of interaction. This has important implications for children's emotional security. Mutuality is required for the scaffolding of new skills to occur, and is thought to promote children's self-regulation of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Higher levels of mutuality are indicative of family environments that promote children's social-emotional competence, and may protect children from behavioral and emotional problems (Harrist & Waugh, 2002). Kochanska et al. report evidence of links between MRO in early childhood with several aspects of conscience in the preschool years. Furthermore, these links are accounted for by the degree to which the child enjoys mother–child interactions and strives to be compliant.
In stark contrast to the warm accepting behaviors shown through MRO, harsh rejecting parental behavior promotes the development of children's behavioral and emotional problems. In their 10-year longitudinal study of boys, Beck and Shaw find compelling evidence that this and other adverse factors in the home environment are more powerful statistical predictors of antisocial behavior if perinatal complications occur (e.g., premature birth, breech position, ruptured uterus, eclampsia). Their results show that it is the combination of family adversity, rejecting parenting, and perinatal complications that best account for individual differences in aggressive behavior problems in early and middle childhood. Thus, children who are exposed to severe perinatal risk are the most vulnerable to the effects of harsh rejecting parenting. These results suggest that mothers of infants or toddlers who report chaotic and unstable home environments and frustration in caring for their older children are the most likely candidates for intervention, and the youngest of children are the most likely to show the benefits of successful interventions. This work implies that efforts to teach parenting skills should be supported, especially to parents of young children showing clear signs of problems in executive functioning (including impulsivity, reactivity, and short attention span). Furthermore, as suggested by the finding regarding the effects of family adversity, interventions with families in which perinatal risks are present may be particularly effective if parenting stress is reduced through improvements in parents’ coping with stressors inside and outside of the family (Kazdin & Wassell, 2000).
The focus of the current issue shifts to several reports regarding the inter-generational transmission of psychopathology and problems in parenting. In a two-part paper, Dixon and her colleagues present the analysis of various mediators of the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment. In the first report, they describe the identification of a set of factors that facilitate transmission of abusive parenting from one generation to the next. These include parenthood before 21 years of age, current or past mental health difficulties or illnesses, and residing with a violent adult. Together, these factors account for half of the variance in the inter-generational continuity of abusive parenting. In their second paper, Dixon et al. go further in exploration of the role of problems in parenting such as negative attributions, unrealistic perceptions of child behavior, and insensitive and rejecting caregiving. They find that the inclusion of these more proximal parenting cognitions and practices further improves prediction of the inter-generational transmission effect. This work will lead to clearer specification of a smaller and more clearly defined set of factors that researchers and clinicians can use for identifying very young children in families who are most likely to show the promulgation of maltreatment and its deleterious effects. This research also points to the importance of prioritizing such families for placement in specialist services in mental health and violence prevention, and highlights targets for intervention that might promote and enhance positive parenting.
The papers on the inter-generational transmission of abuse are followed by a meta-analysis by Yirmiya and Shaked in which they examine the links between parental psychopathology and children's autism. Clinicians and scientists alike report that the parents of children with autism show behaviors that are indicative of autism symptoms, albeit in less severe forms. Yirmiya and Shaked compare the psychiatric problems of parents of children diagnosed with autism with other parents, including those of children with non-autism diagnoses (e.g., learning disabilities) and of children who are developing typically. They find distinct differences, with parents of children with autism showing elevated levels of psychiatric difficulties compared to those of children developing typically, children with Down syndrome, and children with mental retardation of unknown cause. One of the very important albeit preliminary findings is that this difference is most pronounced when comparing parents of autistic children to parents of children with either no disorder or a disorder that does not carry a genetic liability. In contrast, there are no differences in levels of psychiatric difficulties when comparing parents of autistic children to parents of children with other genetically influenced disorders.
In the paper by Gotlib and his colleagues, the emphasis of the current issue moves from autism to the inter-generational continuity of liability for affective disorders. These researchers have examined whether the children of parents with bipolar disorder show distinct biases in information processing that put them at greater risk for developing depression. Individuals who are high in trait neuroticism or are diagnosed with depression or anxiety are more likely to show biased attention to and memory for information in the environment that is laden with ‘negative’ content. For example, highly anxious individuals find it more difficult to shift attention away from ‘threat’ words (Derryberry & Reed, 2002). In their study, Gotlib et al. assessed attention and memory for a number of classes of words (e.g., physical threat, social threat, neutral) as well as positive and negative self-descriptors. They compared non-disordered children of parents with bipolar disorder to a control group of unaffected children of non-disordered parents. They found evidence for attentional and memory biases in the children of parents with bipolar disorder, suggesting that the information processing biases of such children are present before puberty, even among children who are not showing any observable signs of emotional difficulties. If replicated, these results indicate that assessing attention and memory biases in the offspring of parents with affective disorder may allow clinicians to determine which children (well before they are showing symptoms of an affective disorder) are at greatest risk for developing anxiety or depression.
As always, the journal is diverse in content. Although the bulk of the papers describe research on parenting and the inter-generational transmission of psychopathology, there are two papers on cognitive neuroscience and children's development that serve as bookends in the current issue. The first paper is an annotated bibliography by Butterworth that covers the theoretical and empirical work on the development of arithmetic skills. The last paper is an empirical study by Booth and colleagues that examines brain activation patterns underlying attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. Collectively, the papers in the current issue represent well some of the most exciting new directions in our field. This includes rigorous longitudinal and inter-generational designs and methods that integrate multiple levels of analysis (e.g., social, behavioral, cognitive, neural) in attempts to answer important questions about the development of adaptive and maladaptive functioning in childhood and adolescence.