The child’s desirable behaviour

The conclusions of Murray and Bowlby imply that the child’s environment, particularly social relations with their mother are fundamental in the child’s own psychological and emotional development. However, further research by Zahn-Waxler et al (1990) demonstrated that some postnatally depressed mothers could actually have a normal and responsive relationship with their children, which takes some of the significance away from Murray’s findings.

Cummings and Davies (1994) also suggested that after the mothers depression eases, so does the disruption to the child hence there is no lasting effect upon the child’s development. On the other hand, Fergusson et al (1992) in a longitudinal study suggested that changes in the family and parental discord were significantly associated with antisocial and disturbing behaviour in the later life of the child. However not all children showed this disturbing behaviour which may be accounted for by the transactional model discussed later.

At face value the studies by Murray and Stein and Fergusson et al, which advocate that the social environment and punitiveness of parents can lead to disturbed behaviour in children appears plausible. However, MacKinnon-Lewis et al (1992) suggested that the parent-child relationship is not one directional with just the mother influencing the child. Rather the relationship is unidirectional with both affecting each other, not only in a social and emotional context but also in respect of their cognition’s and the way they understand each other. MacKinnon-Lewis et al concluded that both mother and child’s perceptions of each other’s hostility was closely associated as to why they produce negative behaviour to each other. These results possibly demonstrate that children are taking an active part in their own behaviour and affecting the behaviour of others and vise versa.

This active role played by children implies that children play a role in their own development and are not a passive casualty of their social environment, thus dismissing the passive stance suggested by Murray and Bowlby. On the other hand Bell (1968) goes a step further and implies that it is the child’s temperament that could be the fundamental cause for its own disruptive behaviour through the relationship with its parents. For example, children with a challenging temperament evoke strong disciplinary strategies by parents. Thus what Bell is suggesting is that the child provokes and activates the reactions within the relationship and not the parents, which moves away from the direction of effect of the risk factors for children’s disturbing behaviour from parent to child.

Support for Bell’s notion of direction of effect was supported by Barkley et al (1985) who found that utilising drug treatment to reduce hyperactivity in children who were categorised as hyperactive produced a lower style of high control by the parents, thus demonstrating that the child appears to have a significant input as to how relationships are developed between mother and child. Not only was there a reduction in the high control shown by the parents but also the mothers showed more interest in their child’s behaviour and tried zealously to retain the child’s desirable behaviour.

Thus, this approach appears to integrate the medical model such as the child’s innate temperament and how this affects their social environment, in terms of the mother’s cognitive, emotional perceptions and eventually interaction with that child. Paradoxically it is also through the intervention of social environment (the introduction of drugs) that temperament is changed, which ultimately modifies the socio-environment and so on. This appears to follow the notions of the transactional model within a dyad relationship, where the child is actively involved in its own development with the environment and others. Anastai (1958) supported this interactionist approach and suggested that development could not take place without an environment.

This realisation that the parents, the ‘disturbed child and socio-environment factors are required to be considered and adjusted was utilised in the multi-disciplined therapeutic approach with Andrew mentioned above, which eventually proved successful. Although the parents were focused on as potentially adding to the problems of Andrew, they were not exclusively singled out as the only problem. Thus, it appears a transactional model could be the most beneficial approach to explain child disturbances. There are many mutual influences with all parties playing an active role which is fluid and continually being reconstructed, which could have unidirectional effect involved in producing child disturbances. Sameroff and Chandler (1975) give a clear example as to how this transactional model works.

A complicated child birth could cause the mother anxiety, the young infant senses their mother’s emotions which alerts the infant of their mother’s anxiety, which in turn leads to irregular sleeping patterns. Now the mother perceives the child as possessing a difficult temperament and not having the enjoyment that she expected out of the relationship, puts less effort into the relationship, which ultimately leads to slow development by the child. Dunn (1986) however, noted that much of the above research has focused on dyadic relationships without much analysis of other relationships such as siblings.

In conclusion, the identification of disturbance in children may appear to be an explicit concept, however further analysis proves it to be very ambiguous and subjective. For example, what is often categorise as child disturbance appears to be age and culturally specific, also there is little agreement between different bodies of people in the same society. Thus it appears that issues in the identification of child disturbance is fragmented and not conclusive. The subject of the causes of child disturbance further complicates this field of investigation. Various research studies carried out produces comprehensive conclusions to lend support to either internal or external explanations for the influence of disturbance. Bowlby and Murray suggested that the primal cause of child disturbance must lie with the parents, which places a vast amount of social and individual responsibility upon the parents.

However it has been argued that even parents suffering from some forms of anxiety may have an adverse affect upon the child but this is not permanent. Also it is very unlikely that the child develops independently of its social environment or is entirely shaped by it. Many researchers such as Sameroff and Chandler believe that the child can only develop in the environment, they utilise both the nature and nurture aspects. Through the transactional model they believe that the child both influences its environment and is influenced by it through a continual flow interactions. Considering that both the environment and the child may be responsible for development of disturbance, society should not utilise dogmatic and liner explanations for the causation of child disturbance. Without a multi-disciplined approach it is possible that the child may not recover and the burden of responsibility for the disruption inappropriate placed.


Achenbach, T. M., McConaughy, S. H. and Howell, C. T. (1987) sited in Woodhead, M. (1995) p.50 ‘Disturbing Behaviour’ in Barnes, P. (ed.) Personal, Social and Emotional Development of Children, Blackwell/The Open University.

Ahamed, K. and Bright, M. (2002) ‘Yob Parents Blamed for Child Crime’, The Observer, 24 March.

Anastasi, A. J. (1958) cited in Sameroff, A. J. (1994) p.42 ‘The Social Context of Development’ in The Open University (1995) ED209 Child Development, Study Guide 2, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Barkley, R. A., Karlsson, J., . Pollard, S. and Murphy, J. (1985) cited in Woodhead, M. (1995) p.70 – 71 ‘Disturbing Behaviour’ in Barnes, P. (ed.) Personal, Social and Emotional Development of Children, Blackwell/The Open University.

Bell, R. Q., Maccoby, E. E. and Levin, H. (1968) cited in Woodhead, M. (1995) p.68 – 69 ‘Disturbing Behaviour’ in Barnes, P. (ed.) Personal, Social and Emotional Development of Children, Blackwell/The Open University.

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