In Brief

An interaction of two negative relationship patterns--frequent conflicts with siblings and coercive parenting--appear to spur antisocial behavior in boys, according to a study by University of Pittsburgh researchers.

Psychology student Monica Garcia conducted the study as part of a larger project directed by Daniel Shaw, PhD, and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Focusing on 180 boys from low-income families in the Pittsburgh area, the research team examined the boys' interactions with their mothers and mostly older siblings. In total, 310 children participated in the study, published in this month's issue of Developmental Psychology (Vol. 36, No. 1).

The researchers selected several data sets from the larger project for their analyses. One was an observation of the boys at age 2 as they performed a clean-up task with their mothers. Another was an observation of the boys at age 5 as they and their siblings played with toys. Finally, the researchers considered teacher reports on the boys' behavior at age 6 and mothers' reports on their boys' behavior at all three assessments.

Their data suggest that boys with the most behavior problems had two patterns in common:

  • Abnormally high levels of sibling conflict--including kicking, fighting and yelling.
  • Mothers whose parenting style was particularly rejecting--meaning that they responded to their children with criticism, hostility and physical punishment.

Boys from such backgrounds showed higher levels of aggressive behavior than other boys.

Garcia speculates that, when added to rejecting parenting, sibling conflict goads negative behavior patterns in boys "because these are supposed to be two of the most affirmative relationships for boys growing up."

If boys don't learn conflict resolution skills through these two relationships, their arguments tend to escalate into fights, she says.

Adds her co-author, Shaw, "Family styles of interaction are contagious. If there's a hostile relationship with the mother, and the child acts this out with a sibling, the hostility is reinforced."