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Aggressive children aren't born that way, study finds

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Toddlers who are persistently aggressive, defiant and "explosive" aren't born that way. A new longitudinal study says they're made that way by "negative parenting" as early as infancy.

Researchers followed more than 260 mothers and their children from birth until Grade 1. The study began by assessing the infants' temperament and how well they were parented between the first week they were born up until they were six months old. Researchers then observed the mothers and children at the age of two and a half and three years old while the kids performed a task that required the parent's help. In the third stage of the experiment, when the children had reached kindergarten and first grade, teachers and mothers rated the children's behaviour problems.

"Before the study, we thought it was likely the combination of difficult infant temperament and negative parenting that put parent-child pairs most at risk for conflict in the toddler period, and then put the child at risk for conduct problems at school age," Michael F. Lorber, lead author of the study, said in a release. "However, our findings suggest that it was negative parenting in early infancy that mattered most."

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By "negative parenting," researchers mean handling children roughly, expressing negative emotions toward them and so forth. This style of parenting created a spiral of jerkiness, essentially, whereby parents would get angry with kids, kids would get angry back, thus making mom even more angry, and then the kid would blow his stack a little bit more, further aggravating the whole dynamic, and so on, until you can imagine everyone screaming at and generally being horrible to one another.

"Negative parenting in infancy appeared to set the stage for both moms and their kids being more hostile and angry during the toddler years, bringing out the worst in one another," the release said.

Prof. Lorber, who led the research while at the University of Minnesota, said the findings could be used to help develop interventions to ensure that kids don't develop behavioural problems.

"The results of our study move beyond findings to explain the underlying process linking how mothers parent their children in infancy and the problems children have in early elementary school," he said.

The study was published in the journal Child Development.

Is parenting always to blame, or do you think some kids are just born bratty?

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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