Does harsh parenting and teacher sensitivity impact emotion regulation in toddlerhood?

University researcher evaluates emotional regulation in 14-, 24- and 36-month-old socioeconomically disadvantaged toddlers in child care

New research suggests mothers’ harsh parenting can influence toddler emotion regulation over time.


9/26/2018 | By: Nicole Shearer |

Emotional self-regulation is not something children are born with. In fact, as many parents with temper-throwing toddles can attest - it is something that is developed over time given a number of genetic and environmental factors. One new study, done by researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Arizona, suggests that how well toddlers learn to regulate their emotions early on has a social impact later in life. Additionally, the study shows that harsh parenting, specifically from mothers, has an impact on their emotional regulation. It further examines how teacher sensitivity in child care could affect emotional regulation during toddler years.

"For toddlers, emotional self-regulation is the ability to manage their emotions and behave in accordance to the demands of the situation," Jennifer Mortensen, University of Nevada, Reno College of Education assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies, said. "Toddlerhood is an important time for the development of emotion regulation as children transition from being soothed by others to the ability to sooth themselves."

The research, recently published in the peer-reviewed "Early Education and Development" journal, evaluated data available from the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project, a longitudinal program evaluation of Early Head Start families around the nation. Using longitudinal path modeling, Mortensen and her colleague, Associate Professor Melissa Barnett, were able to evaluate the back-and-forth interactions between mothers' harsh parenting behaviors and toddlers' emotion regulation skills across three points of time in a sample of socioeconomically disadvantaged families utilizing center-based child care. Data were collected in homes when children were 14-, 24- and 36-months-old and at their child care centers.

"Past research suggested that mothers' punitive behaviors increase children's escape and revenge-seeking emotion and anger actions, therefore, I choose to focus this research on mother/toddler interactions," Mortensen said. "The goal was to examine what happened to a toddler's ability to regulate his/her emotions if he/she experienced harsh parenting and to find out if teacher sensitivity in child care could act as a buffer."

In the study, Mortensen and Barnett also note that risks are greater for socioeconomically disadvantaged toddlers when poverty-related stressors such as parental mental health and resource scarcity may fuel harsh parenting behaviors. According to the study, mothers dealing with the strain of poverty and neighborhood violence have been shown to use less warmth and instead harsher and more controlling behaviors.

"Few studies have examined teacher sensitivity as a protective factor for emotion regulation in socioeconomically disadvantaged families," Mortensen said. "That's one of the reasons why we were inclined to specifically look at this data."

Measuring emotional regulation

In order to examine the data, a number of measures were used. The first was to use the Bayley Scales of Infant Development - II to assess toddlers' emotional regulation and orientation/engagement. Observers with the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project responded to 13 items along a five-point scale, with higher scores indicating more positive behaviors.

Trained observers also assessed parenting behaviors when mothers and toddlers participated in a series of 10-minute semi-structured play tasks in their homes. Mothers were asked to interact with their child as they normally would while playing with a series of toys in three separate bags. Interactions were video recorded and coded by an independent third party for intrusiveness and negative regard displayed towards the child. As an example, mothers who interrupted the pace of their toddler's play, showed little respect for their toddler's efforts, or regarded the toddler with negativity were deemed harsher.

Related Academic Program

Teacher sensitivity was assessed in child care centers at the 14- and 24- month time points with the Caregiver Interaction Scale. For a two-and-a-half hour observation, trained observers rated instances of teachers' behaviors from 1 (item is not at all characteristic of this caregiver) to 4 (item is very characteristic of this caregiver) for 26 items that assessed the extent to which teachers displayed warmth (positive behaviors); were uninvolved and uninterested (detached behaviors); were hostile, threatening, or critical (punitive behaviors); and were lax toward children's misbehavior (permissive behaviors).

Surprising outcomes

Study results did find evidence that mothers' harsh parenting and toddler emotion regulation influence each other over time. Contrary to the study's hypothesis, teacher sensitivity was not associated with emotion regulation when considered at 14 months or when considered at 14 and 24 months. Mortensen believes this could be due to a number of factors.

"It is possible that the associations between child care, parenting and emotion regulation represented in the study may not accurately depict the way in which teacher sensitivity facilitates regulatory skills, especially in the context of harsh parenting," Mortensen said. "As an example, although this study examined the subsample of families who participated in child care at both 14 and 24 months, more years of a sensitive child care teacher may be needed to reduce the effect of harsh parenting experiences at home, especially for toddlers living with additional poverty-related stressors."

Mortensen also said that since this study only considered mothers' parenting behaviors within the home, the role other caregivers in the home (e.g. fathers, grandparents, mothers' romantic partners, etc.) also stands to play an important role in toddlers' emotion regulation. She said she believes future studies should consider an ecological profile of the caregiving environment of the home, which may have important implications for the relative importance of teacher sensitivity in child care.

"The interactions between mothers and toddlers provides an important context for the development of emotion regulation," Mortensen said. "Harsh parenting threatens to undermine these processes; thus, it is important to consider sources of support for other caregiving settings, such as center-based child care. More research is needed to understand the potential role of teacher sensitivity in child care in serving toddlers and families, especially those who may be at a heightened risk for establishing hostile parent-child interactions."

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