Mothers' emotions as predictors of toddlers' autonomous behaviors




Bryan, Amy E.

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Autonomy is a critical component of early childhood with important implications for children’s competence and well-being (e.g., Erikson, 1963; Mahler, Pine & Bergman, 1975; Sroufe & Rutter, 1984). Although parental autonomy support is associated with the development of early autonomy (e.g., Endsley, Hutcherson, Garner & Martin, 1979; Frodi, Bridges & Grolnick, 1985; Landry, Smith, Swank & Miller-Loncar, 2000), the mechanisms underlying these associations are largely unexplored. Mothers’ emotions and the affective climate of parent-child interactions may be critical factors by which parenting influences early autonomy. This study (a) examined the degree to which discrete, naturally occurring maternal emotions regulate four indicators of autonomy during toddlerhood: co-regulated goal-directed behavior, low aimlessness, self-assertion, and positive initiative, (b) explored mechanisms through which maternal emotion exerts an influence on children’s autonomous behaviors, and (c) isolated the contribution of mothers’ emotions to children’s autonomous behaviors over that of mothers’ autonomy-supportive behavior. Several important findings emerged. First, maternal emotions, both felt and expressed, were related to children’s autonomous behaviors--mostly in ways predicted by emotion and relationship theories. In general, mothers’ frequent joy and infrequent anger, sadness, and fear predicted high autonomy. Second, the affective climate of mothers’ interactions with their toddlers predicted children’s autonomous behaviors over and above mothers’ autonomy-supportive behavior, suggesting that parental emotion is a unique aspect of autonomy support. Finally, different forms of early autonomy were predicted by different emotions in mothers, emphasizing the complexity of autonomy and the need to better define and measure this construct.




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