University of Sussex
4 files

Angry responses to infant challenges: parent, marital, and child genetic factors associated with harsh parenting

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-08, 21:30 authored by Nastassia Hajal, Jenae Neiderhiser, Ginger Moore, Leslie Leve, Daniel Shaw, Gordon Harold, Laura Scaramella, Jody Ganiban, David Reiss
This study examined genetic and environmental influences on harsh parenting of 9-month-olds. We examined whether positive child-, parent-, and family-level characteristics were associated with harsh parenting in addition to negative characteristics. We were particularly interested in examining evocative gene-environment correlation (rGE) by testing the effect of birth parent temperament on adoptive parents’ harsh parenting. Additionally, we examined associations among adoptive parents’ own temperaments, their marital relationship quality, and harsh parenting. Adoptive fathers’ (but not adoptive mothers’) harsh parenting was inversely related to an index of birth mother positive temperament (reward dependence), indicating evocative rGE. Higher marital quality was associated with less harsh parenting, but only for adoptive fathers. Adoptive parents’ negative temperamental characteristics (harm avoidance) were related to hostile parenting. Findings suggest the importance of enhancing positive family characteristics in addition to mitigating negative characteristics, as well as engaging multiple levels of the family system to prevent harsh parenting. Children have the potential to evoke strong positive and negative affective responses from parents, which then influence and organize caregiving behavior (Dix, 1991). All young children demonstrate challenging behaviors, such as prolonged crying that may be difficult to soothe, uncooperativeness with bathing or dressing, or difficulty with eating or sleeping. The degree to which parental negative emotion is evoked by these challenges and expressed in interactions with children is often characterized as harsh or overreactive parenting. Harsh parenting is a function of a complex interplay of risk and protective factors that operate at multiple levels of the family system (i.e., characteristics of the parent, child, and family environment; Belsky, 1984; Boivin et al., 2005; DiLalla & Bishop, 1996; Neiderhiser et al., 2004, 2007; Towers, Spotts, & Neiderhiser, 2002). The long-term maladaptive developmental outcomes associated with harsh, negative parenting during infancy (Bayer, Ukoumunne, Mathers, Wake, Abdi, & Hiscock, 2012; Bradley & Corwyn, 2008; Lorber & Egeland, 2009) underscore the need for improved understanding of risk and protective factors associated with early harsh parenting. The current study aims to extend on the research on harsh parenting in infancy in two ways. First, although risk factors for early harsh parenting are well documented, we know little about factors that buffer parents from harsh parenting during infancy; this study examines independent and differential effects of positive and negative characteristics on harsh parenting. Second, although interest in child effects on parenting, including harsh parenting, has been present in the field for decades (Bell, 1979; Bell & Chapman, 1986; Rutter et al., 1997) we know very little about the degree to which the effects found in the literature truly reflect evocative effects of infants’ genetically influenced characteristics. The current study used an adoption design to test the hypothesis that genetically influenced temperamental characteristics of 9-month-olds would influence adoptive parents’ harsh parenting. Previous research has identified many correlates of harsh parenting, including negative characteristics of the parent (e.g., maternal depression; Lovejoy, Graczyk, O’Hare, & Neuman, 2000), family (e.g., marital hostility, Rhoades et al., 2011), and child (e.g., difficult temperament, Plomin, Loehlin & DeFries, 1985; poor regulation, Bridgett et al., 2009). Previous research has identified risk factors for harsh parenting, but very little is known about how positive parent, child, and family characteristics might mitigate it. For example, a positive marital relationship could buffer the impact of high levels of depressive symptoms on parenting, and thus have implications for prevention and intervention efforts. The current study examined positive and negative parent, child, and family factors in association with harsh parenting. A second emphasis centered on understanding the role of infants’ genetically influenced characteristics on harsh parenting. Much of the previous work on child effects on parenting has examined child temperament. In general, child positivity is related to positive parenting, while child negativity is related to negative parenting (Putnam, Sanson, & Rothbart, 2002; Wilson & Durbin, 2012). However, the general lack of genetically sensitive designs in this research makes it impossible to determine whether these associations exist because (1) harsh parenting leads to negative child characteristics, (2) specific child characteristics evoke harsh parenting (evocative gene-environment correlation, rGE; Plomin, Loehlin & DeFries, 1977; Scarr & McCartney, 1983) or (3) children and parents share genes that contribute to both parenting and temperament (passive gene-environment correlation). Therefore, genetically-sensitive research designs are needed to disentangle these influences to understand specific mechanisms underlying relations between child characteristics and parent behavior.


Publication status

  • Published


Child Development









Page range


Department affiliated with

  • Psychology Publications

Full text available

  • Yes

Peer reviewed?

  • Yes

Legacy Posted Date


Usage metrics

    University of Sussex (Publications)


    No categories selected


    Ref. manager