Mothers' aversion sensitivity in the regulation of negative mother-child interactions
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Recent research suggests that aversion sensitivity—the tendency to increase negative expression rapidly as the aversive properties of children’s behavior increase—may alter how mothers react to difficult child behaviors. When sensitive to, and thus distressed by children’s aversive behavior, mothers may express negative emotions to children that, in turn, activate children’s reciprocal negativity, leading to further negativity from the mother, and so on. Yet unknown is whether being emotionally sensitive to aversive child behaviors predicts distinct patterns of mother-child interactions. Based on predictions from emotion theory and research on coercive family interaction, this study examined whether mothers’ aversion sensitivity is associated with distinct patterns of parent, child, and reciprocal negative expressions in mother-child interactions. Using longitudinal data from 319 mother-child dyads, we tested multilevel models that specified within-dyad relations between mothers’ aversion sensitivity and observed patterns of mother-child emotion and behavior during interactions. From codes of mother-child conversations over time, forty-seven child behaviors were ranked from least to most aversive based on their probability of eliciting negative emotion from mothers. Using these ranks, we measured at each assessment aversion sensitivity: the rate at which the probability of a mother’s expressing negative emotion increased as child behaviors went from low to high aversive. Results supported predictions from coercion and emotion theories even when controlling for mothers’ general tendencies to express negative emotion and children’s tendencies to react negatively to mothers. These data demonstrate how emotions—and specifically easy activation of maternal distress— may lead to negative mother-child patterns in which mothers orient toward suppressing aversive child behavior to reduce their distress, which have been previously shown to promote children’s resistance and poor adjustment. Understanding these emotional processes may help clarify the biosocial processes responsible for the adverse effects of stress, depression, and other psychosocial factors on parenting competence and child adjustment.