Conduct disorder is not caused by bad parenting

I’m sure this adorable child never behaves badly.


Conduct disorder is when a child keeps behaving in a particularly bad way.  Behaviours indicative of conduct disorder in young children include lying, bullying, making threats, starting fights, damaging property, stealing, hurting animals, hurting people, and starting fires.  For older children, the list also includes sexual assault, staying out at night, and using weapons.

A recent longitudinal study in Massachusetts found that mothers’ level of warmth, over-reactivity or laxness had little to no association with early symptoms of conduct disorder in preschool children.  The researcher selected 197 children whose parents reported disruptive behaviour and followed them for three years, from ages 3-6.  Signs of disruptive behaviour were consistent across time as were parenting styles, but the two were mostly unrelated.  If anything, the study suggests that the children’s behaviour may negatively affect mothers’ warmth and lead them to over-react, rather than the other way around.  But even that’s a very weak relationship.

This finding goes against a deep running belief in our society that parents are to blame for their children’s behaviour.  It’s never been entirely clear whether the problem is supposed to be coercive parenting that sets a bad example or too lax parenting that makes children run wild.  But now it turns out it’s neither.  I’m not sure if it’s good news though because it would be nice to think that we could cure conduct disorder with no more than our own good behaviour.  The author does point to other studies that claim parenting makes a difference for older children, and for other behavioural problems such as defiance and attention-seeking.

Meanwhile, two researchers who interviewed snowboarding mothers note with dismay that motherhood leads to more cautious behaviour.  It’s true, it does.  Yes, voluntary risk taking can be a joyful thing, and yes, mothers are often depressed.  And yet… snowboarding mothers!  Snowboarding while pregnant!  I feel the shockingness, but maybe they’re right – maybe we restrict ourselves too much.



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