Difficult temperament moderates links between maternal responsiveness and children’s compliance and behavior problems in low-income families


  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts disclosed.


Background:  Research has shown that interactions between young children’s temperament and the quality of care they receive predict the emergence of positive and negative socioemotional developmental outcomes. This multimethod study addresses such interactions, using observed and mother-rated measures of difficult temperament, children’s committed, self-regulated compliance and externalizing problems, and mothers’ responsiveness in a low-income sample.

Methods:  In 186 thirty-month-old children, difficult temperament was observed in the laboratory (as poor effortful control and high anger proneness), and rated by mothers. Mothers’ responsiveness was observed in lengthy naturalistic interactions at 30 and 33 months. At 40 months, children’s committed compliance and externalizing behavior problems were assessed using observations and several well-established maternal report instruments.

Results:  Parallel significant interactions between child difficult temperament and maternal responsiveness were found across both observed and mother-rated measures of temperament. For difficult children, responsiveness had a significant effect such that those children were more compliant and had fewer externalizing problems when they received responsive care, but were less compliant and had more behavior problems when they received unresponsive care. For children with easy temperaments, maternal responsiveness and developmental outcomes were unrelated. All significant interactions reflected the diathesis-stress model. There was no evidence of differential susceptibility, perhaps due to the pervasive stress present in the ecology of the studied families.

Conclusions:  Those findings add to the growing body of evidence that for temperamentally difficult children, unresponsive parenting exacerbates risks for behavior problems, but responsive parenting can effectively buffer risks conferred by temperament.