Are teenage boys delinquent because they don't have a close relationship with their mothers, or does a child's character determine how easy it is for a parent to foster warmth and closeness? Is it anyone's fault?
A new longitudinal study published this week in the journal Child Development suggests that the mother-son bonds are critical in determining a boy's behavior as a teenager.
Both the study and a new film -- "Talk About Kevin" -- raise questions about which comes first: the inability of a mother to show warmth toward the child or the child's inability to bond with the parent.
Reseachers say it's not anyone's fault, but the relationship is critical to the child's healthy development.
The study was conducted at Wayne State University, Oklahoma State University, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Montreal and the University of Oregon. It was funded by the National Institutes of Health.
The study concluded that the biggest influence on future delinquency was extended conflict -- "arguing and fighting and it feels like you are struggling" -- after the child starts school and then grows into adolescence.
"Continued conflict, long after the child is 5, is the highest predictor of delinquency," according to lead author Christopher Trentacosta, an assistant professor of psychology at Wayne State University. "Continuing to have conflict -- that matters."
The study evokes the theme of the new film, "We Need to Talk About Kevin," which drew stellar reviews at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
Tilda Swinton plays a mother whose unusually difficult son tests the limits of her love and eventually grows into a psychotic teenager.
In the study, researchers looked at the development of the quality of the mother-son relationship between the ages of 5 and 15, paying particular attention to parental warmth and conflict. They followed 265 families as part of the Pitt Mother and Child Project in Pittsburgh, which examined vulnerability and resilience in low-income boys.
In each pair of mother and son, scientists evaluated where the family lived, the mother's relationship with her husband or partner, the quality of her parenting and the child's temperament.
Other variables were the boys' behavior, their relationship with friends and their "sense of morality" during the teen years.
Boys who were difficult as toddlers had lower levels of closeness with their mothers over time. And when mothers had positive relationships with their romantic partners, the boys stayed closer and fared better.
How a teen related to his mother also reflected better relationships with best friends in adolescence.
The study concluded that "rather than remaining static, parent-child relationships during middle childhood and adolescence are characterized by transformations and realignment."
Scientists say the warmth of the parent-child relationship may stabilize during middle childhood, then turn sour during the early teen years, before improving in the late teens.
Often children, as they grow older, experience conflict with their mothers, which subsides before typical rebellion sets in during the teen years. That, too, wanes in late teens.