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Keep calm and carry on: Mothers with better cognitive, emotional control help kids behave

Mothers with higher emotional, cognitive control help children behave. (Photo: Tina Franklin / MGN)

(KUTV) — According to a parenting study led by Brigham Young University professor Ali Crandall, mothers who have greater emotional control and problem-solving abilities will more likely have children with fewer behavioral problems, such as fighting or throwing tantrums.

The study further shows are less likely to be verbally harsh with their children if they are in control emotionally, and that mothers who maintain control cognitively are not as likely to have controlling parenting attitudes.

According to the study, controlling parenting attitudes are closely linked with child conduct issues.

“When you lose control of your life, that impacts how you parent,” said Crandall, an assistant professor of public health. “That chaos both directly and indirectly influences your child’s behavior.”

For the study, Crandall and co-authors at John Hopkins University and Virginia Tech gathered information from 152 mothers who had children between the ages of 3 and 7. Mothers' ages ranged from 21 to 49 years old; 62 percent of the women were married and one third had not earned more than a high school diploma.

The mother's emotional self control was measured by a 10-item questionnaire which asked them how often they "have angry outbursts" or "overreact to small problems." Cognitive control, referred to as executive functioning, was measured by issuing a series of tasks. Executive functioning helps people achieve daily goals and manage chaos, and includes planning, directing attention to what is most important and problem solving.

"After researchers recorded the emotional control and executive functioning levels of the mothers, they then provided a series of questionnaires to identify parenting attitudes, levels of harsh verbal parenting and the amount of conduct problems their children exhibit," a news release stated.

Researchers not only saw that mothers who had better emotional and cognitive control were less likely to report bad child conduct, like fighting with other children or throwing temper tantrums, but they also saw relationships between a mother's parenting behaviors and control abilities.

"For example, mothers with better emotional control were less likely to see their children's ambiguous behavior in the worst light," the news release stated.

According to the authors, the findings imply that to effectively reduce child behavioral problems and harsh verbal parenting, interventions should assist the mother to improve her emotional and cognitive control capacities.

"There are some clear 'signals' that our supply of self control is being run down — when we are feeling distracted, irritable and tired," said study co-author Kirby Deater-Deckard, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "Parents can practice recognizing these signals in themselves when they are occurring, and respond by taking a 'time out' if at all possible — just as we might do with our child when we notice these signals in them."

"And while it is fairly difficult for an adult with a fully-developed brain to improve their executive functioning," a news release states, "previous research has shown that the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where executive functioning is housed, is generally developed over the first two to three decades of life — the authors said even small improvements in a few basic areas of life can make a significant difference for parents."

“Getting enough sleep, exercising enough and eating well are all things that impact our executive functioning,” Crandall said. “We should create healthy environments that help us operate at our best.”

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