Academic journal article Family Relations

Disentangling the Associations between Contextual Stress, Sensitive Parenting, and Children's Social Development

Academic journal article Family Relations

Disentangling the Associations between Contextual Stress, Sensitive Parenting, and Children's Social Development

Article excerpt

Acquiring social skills during early childhood seems to place children on a trajectory of increasing competence. During early childhood, social skills allow children to initiate and maintain positive social interactions (Denham et al., 2003). Children who enter school more socially skilled seem to make an easier transition into kindergarten (Denham, 2006; Ladd,Herald,&Kochel,2006;LaParo&Pianta, 2000), perform better academically during early childhood (Ladd, 1990; Ladd, Birch, & Buhs, 1999; McClelland, Acock, & Morrison, 2006), and have fewer internalizing and externalizing problems during elementary school (Lansford, Malone, Stevens, Dodge, Bates, & Pettit, 2006). In contrast, children who lack basic social skills by age 6 have been found to be at increased risk for dropping out of school, criminal behavior, and psychopathology during adulthood (Parker & Asher, 1987).

Theoretically, the parent-child relationship represents an important social context for children to learn social skills, particularly during early childhood (Raver, 2004). Sensitive parenting, or parents' ability to respond to children's needs and interests rather parents' own goals (Kochanska, 1997), has been linked to more sophisticated social skills during early childhood (Burchinal, Roberts, Zeisel, Hennon, & Hooper, 2006). Sensitive parenting promotes social skill development because such parenting models self-control, negotiation, and cooperation. Parents who respond sensitively to their young children's needs are more likely to have children who internalize parental standards (e.g., Grusec, Goodnow, & Kuczynski, 2000; Kochanska, 1997), are securely attached (Belsky & Cassidy, 1994), have more sophisticated language skills (Landry, Smith, Miller-Loncar, & Swank, 1997), and have fewer behavioral problems (e.g., Miner & Clarke-Stewart, 2008; Warren & Simmens, 2005). Upon school entry, such children seem to be more popular and accepted by peers (Connolly & Doyle, 1981). In contrast, overexposure to harsh and inconsistent parenting during early childhood increases children's risk for experiencing elevated levels of internalizing and externalizing problems (e.g., Chang, Schwartz, Dodge, & McBride-Chang, 2003).

Although the family context provides the primary avenue for social development, less is known regarding the impact of social con- texts that may interfere with parents' capacity to engage in sensitive parenting. That is, fam- ilies exist within a larger social network that is often tied to economic circumstances (e.g., Bronfenbrenner, 1986). For instance, economi- cally disadvantaged families often reside in more dangerous neighborhoods, attend less optimal schools, and have fewer resources to invest in children's learning (e.g., Conger & Don- nellan, 2007). Not surprisingly, children from economically deprived homes often enter school without the basic social skills necessary to suc- cessfully navigate the transition into preschool and kindergarten (e.g., Blair, 2002; Ladd et al., 1999; Raver, 2004). Although an accumulation of contextual stress has been associated with social adjustment difficulties, the mechanism through which accumulation of sociocontextual stress impacts social development is unclear. This study considers two mechanisms by which an accumulation of contextual stress affects chil- dren's social skill development.

AN ACCUMULATION OF CONTEXTUAL STRESSORS AND CHILDREN'S SOCIAL SKILLS: MODERATION OR MEDIATION?

In 1979, Rutter argued that families could suc- cessfully cope with a few social-contextual risks, but as sociocontextual stressors accumulate, maladjustment increases. Using data collected from 3,500 children on the Isle of Wight, Rutter (1979) created a risk index based on six sociocontextual family characteristics: marital discord, low socioeconomic status, household overcrowding, parental criminality, maternal psychiatric disorder, and child involvement with foster care. …

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