Parent-child coercive cycle in early childhood can have a major impact on a child’s development of social relationships and behavior1. Decades of research has found that early conduct problems and harsh parenting can lead to a child’s adjustment difficulties later in life2.
Patterson Coercion Theory
Patterson’s Coercion Theory describes a process of mutual reinforcement in which parents unintentionally reinforce their children’s problem behaviors and children reinforce their parents’ coercive parenting.
The increasing hostility, aggression, and negativity between parents and children result in the Coercive Cycle3.
What Is Coercive Cycle
The parent-child coercive cycle is a cycle of harsh discipline and negative parent-child interactions leading to the development of conduct and antisocial behavior in the child.
A coercive cycle typically begins when a child disobeys the parent’s directive or request. The misbehavior provokes anger and hostility in the parent and the parent reacts punitively, which provokes the child’s aggression, which raises the parent’s hostile response even more. As the exchanges continue, the level of coercion intensifies and escalates to create a vicious cycle4.
Alternatively, parents may initiate the process by engaging in harsh discipline. Parental coercion leads to higher levels of child disruptive behavior and fuels further anger and hostility from the parent.
The cycle continues until one of the participants “wins.” If the child finally gives in, the parent “wins” and coercive parenting is reinforced. If the parent disengages, the child “wins” reinforcing the aggressive behavior5. The parent has been shaped to back down when the child’s behavior becomes aversive the next time the parent tries to discipline.
As a result, parental behavior unintentionally reinforces difficult child behavior; similarly, aversive child behavior amplifies parental negativity. Negative reinforcement of the child’s misbehavior and parent’s coercion creates a positive feedback cycle. Parent-child interactions become increasingly challenging over time, leading to an escalation of aggressive behavior.
What Causes The Coercive Cycle
Both the parents’ and children’s behaviors contribute to the creation of the coercive cycle since it is shaped, reciprocated and maintained by both.
The Child’s Contribution – Temperament
Children and parents often develop a pattern of mutual coercion during the toddler years. In toddlerhood, a child’s body, brain, motor skills, and emotions are developing rapidly.
With the ability to walk, toddlers start to explore the environment and venture into dangerous or forbidden places.
The primary challenge for parents during this time is to balance the demands of compliance with the allowance for free exploration.
To protect their children, parents must start using discipline, control, and limit setting to restrict toddlers’ mobility. Therefore, parenting a temperamentally difficult toddler is particularly challenging.
A child’s temperament can influence the parent-child interactions. A child with a difficult temperament often shows emotion dysregulation, which is more likely to provoke harsh parenting responses6.
The more behavioral difficulties a child has, the more coercive, controlling, and negative the parent’s response will be, which, in turn, stimulates the child’s aggression, resulting in the coercive cycle.
The Parent’s Contribution – Coercive Parenting
Harsh parenting contributes to the coercive cycle in four ways.
First, negative emotional reactions from harsh parents reflect parents’ own inability to control their emotions. Harsh parents don’t model proper emotion regulation for their children. They also use more control and less guidance7.
When faced with adversity, children learn to become reactive.
Second, poorly regulated parents are also more likely to interpret children’s negative emotion as intentional, and therefore initiate coercive interactions with them.
Third, harsh parenting promotes inappropriate regulatory behavior. Rather than diverting children’s attention away from a distressing event, coercive parents increase the focus on it and fail to help the kids ease the distress.
Fourth, in an emotionally charged interaction, the child reacts to the emotions rather than the content of the parent’s requests. Even when the harsh parent has a “correct” request, if the message is delivered with negative emotion, the child will react to the emotion rather than the request itself.
Why Is Coercive Cycle Problematic
Noncompliance and aggression are common in early childhood, but ineffective parenting can lead to an increase in conflict, which is a breeding ground for oppositional behavior8.
By preschool age, children who are defiant at home likely have learned how to shut down unpleasant or unrewarding demands using aggressive behavior.
In a family where coercive interactions are prevalent, a child’s conduct problems arise.
Through the coercive cycle, children learn a pattern of behavior within the family that then carries over into interactions with others outside the family, such as peers and teachers9.
Poor emotional regulation also contributes to the formation of conduct issues at school.
When parents are hostile, they model poor emotion regulation and do not teach their children how to interact with their peers cooperatively and socially10.
Children who cannot regulate negative emotional arousal are likely to experience social problems with peers in school.
Problem behaviors that have been formed at home are usually maintained at school by coercive exchanges with peers11.
The development of conduct problems in early childhood often leads to more serious delinquent3 and criminal behaviors12 later in life. Researchers have also found a strong correlation between coercive parenting and subsequent early arrest13,14.
Breaking The Coercive Cycle
To break the coercive cycle, both the parent and the child need to learn to regulate their emotions to avoid escalated hostile exchanges.
Interventions targeting coercive parenting practices can prevent escalation of conduct problems15.
Educating parents and children about proper regulating strategies is another way to break the coercive cycle.
Final Thoughts On Coercive Cycle
Although both the child and the parent contribute to creating and sustaining the coercive cycle, there is only one adult in this interaction. As the grownups, parents need to take the initiative to break the harsh parenting practice and help kids learn adaptive relationship skills.
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