Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Anger Transmission from Mother to Child: A Comparison of Mothers in Chronic Pain and Well Mothers

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Anger Transmission from Mother to Child: A Comparison of Mothers in Chronic Pain and Well Mothers

Article excerpt

This study tested whether on days when mothers feel angrier than usual they transmit their anger to their child through harsh parenting, and it examined whether the anger-transmission process is dampened in families in which there is an obvious noninterpersonal explanation for maternal anger. Daily diary data were obtained from the mother and an adolescent child in 42 control families and in 40 families in which the mother experienced heightened anger because of a chronic-pain condition, Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome (RSDS). The anger-transmission model was supported in control mothers but not in RSDS mothers. Although RSDS mothers felt angrier than control mothers on the typical day, the negativity of their parenting was less contingent on their anger, and their children were marginally less reactive than control children to similar harsh parenting.

Key Words: anger, daily diary, emotion transmission, pain, parenting.

There is accumulating evidence of heightened distress and interpersonal difficulties in children of parents experiencing acute and chronic stressors, such as divorce, unemployment, clinical depression, and poverty (Conger, Patterson, & Ge, 1995; Dix, 1991). To account for these findings, Downey and Coyne (1990) proposed that, by inducing distress, these parental stressors exhaust parents' capacity for tolerating aversive child behavior and for engaging in the sustained, effortful interaction that characterizes effective parenting. (See also, Forgatch, Patterson, & Skinner, 1988; McLoyd, 1990.) Specifically, distress is thought to disrupt parenting by increasing parental negativity (e.g., punitiveness, hostility) and by diminishing parental positivity (e.g., emotional support, responsiveness, affection, and involvement). These alternative ways of avoiding more complex, energy-absorbing forms of social interaction are thought to induce child distress by making the parent appear unavailable, rejecting, and coercive. (See also, ., Kuczynski, Radke-Yarrow, & Welsh, 1987; Patterson, 1982; Wahler & Dumas, 1989.)


Figure 1 summarizes this basic model of distress transmission. We acknowledge that the transmission process is undoubtedly bidirectional. Children's distress influences parents, and parents' distress influences children. (For reviews, see Dix, 1991; Repetti & Wood, 1997a.) However, in this article we focus on transmission from parent to child. Consistent with the model in Figure 1, researchers have shown that parents' distress helps explain the association between chronic and acute parental stressors and disruptions in parenting (Conger et al., 1995; Elder, Caspi, & Downey, 1986; McLoyd & Wilson, 1990). Parenting quality, in turn, helps account for the link between parental distress and child difficulties. Although tests of the model generally have yielded evidence consistent with the model, a number of important questions remain. This study addresses three of these questions.

Does the Model Operate Within Families as Well as Between Families?

Prior studies of the model of distress transmission typically have treated parental distress as a stable, individual difference variable (e.g., Conger et al., 1995). Considerably less attention has been paid to determining whether the emotions of parents and their children covary over time within families and whether, if such an association exists, it is mediated by concomitant fluctuations in parenting quality. (For exceptions, see Repetti & Wood, 1997b; Snyder, 1991.) Our study uses daily diary data from mothers and their adolescent children to examine the links among maternal distress, parenting, and child distress in typical families and in chronically stressed families in which the mother experiences heightened distress because of chronic pain. (See Larson & Almeida, 1999, for a discussion of the advantages of the diary approach.)

Does the Source or Context of Distress Matter? …

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