Parental Warmth and Rejection in the Etiology of Violence

Many investigators have been interested in the role parents play in causing or preventing antisocial behavior in developing children. In the present chapter, we will focus on parental warmth and rejection. Unlike “attachment,” warmth is definitively construed as parental behavior in the form of affection, positive regard, and rewarding emotional expression. It conveys a sense of caring about the child, the desire for the child to be happy and physically comfortable, and a desire to be with the child (e.g., Zhou et al., 2002).

In this chapter, we see parental warmth and rejection as opposite ends of a continuum, much the same way Rohner (1986) viewed it. In many studies, authors treat warmth and rejection on a continuum, although some authors measure them as separate constructs. To the extent that parents bestow affection and positive regard, we reason that they cannot, at the same time, inflict negativity, dislike, and rejection. Therefore, warmth and rejection are unlikely to comprise two unique constructs.

In spite of the fact that descriptions of widely-known “severe deprivation” studies often emphasize the lack of affection received by deprived children (see Chapter 2), parental warmth and rejection have only been studied as niche areas of research and have not received a great deal of attention in theory development. The two constructs do not fit neatly alongside such constructs as authoritative parenting or “attachment” which have received significant theoretical and empirical attention. Parental warmth and rejection are not featured as separate sections in major child development textbooks. There are no “seminal” works focusing exclusively on parental warmth and rejection and their impact on child development, though Baumrind includes warmth as part of the “nurturant” component of authoritative parenting (Baumrind, 1965). She reports that warmth and support are part of a set of parental behaviors that correlate with “all aspects” of adolescent competence and with “love and respect for parents” (Baumrind, 1991, p. 749).

The lack of differentiation of a strong, identifiable line of research on parental warmth or rejection may be due to the fact that Baumrind reported some ambiguous findings on warmth in her earliest work, and her subsequent work focused on other dimensions of parenting behavior (reasoning, verbal give-and-take, etc.). While it is unlikely that authoritative parents, or even sensitive and responsive parents, will have much success raising psychologically healthy, prosocial children without bestowing warmth in addition to noticing and attending to the child’s needs, the construct has not been identified by theoreticians in the field as crucial to the healthy development of children. In this regard, an important construct, known to parents and caregivers universally, has fallen through the cracks.

In Chapter 2, we outlined the arguments that parental warmth may be part of the “average expectable environment” and that the expectation of warmth is part of the evolutionary legacy of our ancestors. We drew links between parental warmth/rejection and the emotional system of children, cognitive and linguistic outcomes, children’s prosocial orientation, and compliance.

In addition, the literature implies that parental warmth may be protective against the adverse effects of other factors in the child’s life. For example, one might speculate that parental warmth would attenuate the impact of biological risks, abuse, or peer rejection (e.g., Booth, Johnson, Granger, Crouter, & McHale, 2003; Patterson et al., 1989). Low parental warmth or parental rejection might exacerbate the influence of living in a “bad” neighborhood or associating with deviant peers. Booth et al. (2003) hypothesized that the quality of parent- child relationships would alter the impact of testosterone on risk behavior, and Brendgen et al. proposed that parental warmth would moderate the stability of childhood aggression (Brendgen, Vitaro, Tremblay, & Lavoie, 2001). Considering these hypotheses, one would imagine that the role of parental warmth on delinquency may be protective, rather than direct. Rejection, which is on the opposite end of the continuum, might be expected to have a direct, pernicious effect, in addition to exacerbating the impact of other factors. We see the potential for significant and meaningful effects of rejection on child development due to the concept of average expectable environment discussed in Chapter 2.

Parental rejection is characterized by withdrawal or absence of affection and warmth (Rohner, 1975), and it has been connected with many childhood problems. Studies have found associations between cold and rejecting parenting and poor adolescent health (Repetti, Taylor, & Seeman, 2002) and alcohol problems (Barnow, Schuckit, Lucht, John, & Freyberger, 2002). In the Pittsburgh Girls Study, low warmth was associated with multiple mental health problems (Loeber, Hipwell, Battista, Sembower, & Stouthamer-Loeber, 2009). Maternal rejection has been correlated with attention problems (Ruchkin, Eisenmann & Haggloff, 1998), and in the Columbia County Longitudinal Study, parental rejection had strong negative associations with intellectual and educational achievement across the board (Huesmann et al., 2006).

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