Parent behaviors supporting children's independence vary by family risk

picture of mother helping child with homework

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Parental responses that support children’s independence are less common in families facing more risk factors. This may be true regardless of whether parents are responding to children’s on- or off-task behavior, according to Penn State researchers.

According to Catherine Diercks, doctoral candidate in developmental psychology, parental scaffolding is a method of structuring activities to help children reach beyond their immediate capacity and develop independence and competence. Research suggests that scaffolding may be one avenue by which self-regulation can be fostered in children in vulnerable families.

“Children in families with fewer financial resources, more life stressors, and more parental substance use, for example, are less likely to receive parental scaffolding. Researchers often refer to this mounting of multiple risk factors as cumulative risk. However, until now, it has been unclear how higher cumulative risk affects the dynamics of parent-child scaffolding interactions in real time.”

The work appears in the Journal of Family Psychology.

Diercks, along with Erika Lunkenheimer, associate professor of psychology and Social Science Research Institute cofunded faculty member, examined the role of cumulative risk in mothers’ moment to-moment use of parent scaffolding and directive commands in response to preschoolers’ off-task and on-task behaviors.

“Previous research has tended to examine parent-child interactions across wider windows of time. The current study is the first to evaluate how parents’ moment-to-moment scaffolding and directive responses to children vary by family risk status,” said Diercks. “This method allows us to document parenting responses to specific child behaviors on a second-by-second scale.”

Participants included 117 mothers and their preschoolers. When children were 2 ½ years old, mothers answered questions about potential risk factors including maternal education, maternal relationship status, family income, family size, maternal alcohol use, maternal life stress, and maternal mental health problems.

Then, when children were 3 years old, the mothers completed a challenging puzzle task with their preschoolers in the lab. Videotaped behaviors observed from both mothers and children were coded on a second-by-second scale. Using this data, researchers examined the association between cumulative risk and maternal responses when children were both off-task and on-task.

The researchers found that when children went off-task, higher-risk mothers showed lower levels of scaffolding compared to lower-risk mothers. When children got on-task, they were surprised to find that higher-risk mothers were still less likely to respond with scaffolding and were also more likely to respond with directive commands than lower-risk mothers.

“When a child is already on task and doing what they are supposed to, they likely don’t need to be directed. But in our study, we found that higher-risk parents were directing their children in these situations anyway,” Diercks said.

“Interestingly, we found that mothers were roughly 10 percent more likely to respond to on-task behavior with directives with each additional risk factor they reported. This suggests that facing more risk may lead parents to use more controlling strategies to instill their own agenda, even when children’s on-task behavior presents the opportunity for children to practice independence.”

One reason may be that directive strategies are easier to implement than scaffolding techniques, which require more time and self-regulation on behalf of the parent. When parents are already stressed or overwhelmed, monitoring and enhancing children’s learning opportunities may be a lower priority. Higher parental stress may alter parenting goals such that the focus is on children following the rules or meeting basic expectations rather than on promoting independence.

The researchers also hypothesized that higher-risk parents may feel more pressure to succeed in a lab setting. “We know from prior research that when parents perceive social threat or fear child failure, interactions can become more controlling in nature,” said Diercks.

Although the testing took place prior to the start of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the research is especially valuable as risks increase in many families due to job loss, parent mental health concerns, and mounting life stressors. “There is already evidence that COVID-19 has had a negative impact on children’s self-regulation. It is therefore even more critical to investigate the drivers of parenting responses and how they support or do not support children’s self-regulation during this time,” Diercks said.

Diercks first became interested in parent-child interaction dynamics in her undergraduate and post-baccalaureate work at the University of Oregon, where she worked on projects that evaluated preventive interventions aimed to support higher-risk parents of preschoolers. She was inspired by hundreds of families battling and overcoming major life stressors.

In the future, Diercks would like to investigate protective factors that may buffer children from the effects of familial risk and parent stress. She would also like to examine whether these same behavioral patterns are observed in more naturalistic settings like the home. “Understanding what scaffolding behaviors are more easily enacted in home settings could lead to more effective tailoring of preventive interventions aimed to help parents support their children’s developing self-regulation,” she said.

This project was supported by grants awarded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The work was conducted at Penn State’s Parent-Child Dynamics Lab in the Child Study Center using data collected by Lunkenheimer. Other researchers on the project were Kayla Brown, doctoral candidate in developmental psychology, and Dr. Mike Stoolmiller.

People Mentioned in this Article

Erika Lunkenheimer