Aug. 30, 2011— -- 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.
As teens approach their 20s, they tend to have fewer confrontations with their mothers, according to Trentacosta. "Speculation is that kids are better able to manage themselves and their behavior and don't have as many temper tantrums," he said. "There is a myth out there that conflict increases in adolescence. The overall frequency of conflict and how often you feel like you are struggling is more often when the child is 5 than at 12."
How the relationship between mother and son changes can affect boys' behavior when they become teens, according to researchers.
In a subset of the group of study participants -- fewer than 10 percent -- boys and their mothers reported consistently high levels of conflict that didn't dissipate after they grew older. For them, those conflicts spelled trouble.
But Dr. Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, said these study results have to be "parsed very carefully."
"Mothers may bond and attach better with a child who is less deviant, more cooperative, more affectionate and more like them," he said. "It's the other way around -- having a wonderful child leads to better outcomes."
Too Much Pressure on Mothers
Kazdin said that although this study confirms the importance of warmth and closeness, if the findings are misinterpreted, "it's just another way to put pressure on mom."
Many factors go into raising a healthy child, according to Kazdin, including parenting practices, genetics and environmental influences.
"People should not be alarmed if they have a bad relationship with a child," he said. "Of course, a good relationship is always better. But talk to them, listen to them and be comforting. If you don't have a good relationship, it's not that you blew it. Maybe it's the character of your child that made it difficult."
Conversely, establishing a good relationship with the child, is "no guarantee to prevent delinquency," he said.
Kazdin noted that Yale has been working on changing parent-child interactions to prevent violent behavior, including improving communication.
"Parents get discouraged when they see their teens don't want anything to do with them, but that's totally false," he said. "Kids want to talk with their parents about drugs and sex, not with their peers, but the parents aren't approachable."
Trentacosta said his study took into consideration a child's temperament in measurements taken when the boys were 18 months and 24 months old.
"We found among the boys different temperaments predicted elevated levels of conflict and also predicted less warmth," he said. "There was a lot of arguing and fighting. Moms felt less closeness and warmth."
Trentacosta agrees that the findings are "more nuanced" than just whether or not the mother and son have a "good or bad relationship."
"It wasn't so much the parenting behavior, but more about how the parents perceived that aspect of their relationship," he said.
He said the study may have positive implications for prevention and intervention, addressing conflict in the parent-child relationship in family-focused programs with the ultimate goal of reducing delinquent behavior.
"Like all things, you shouldn't put it on the kid or on the parent, what matters most is the relationship," said Trentacosta. "If you want to prevent the kid from delinquency, [the parent and the child] need to do something different. The two could work on their relationship, especially at an early age."
The study findings encourage parents to pay attention to conflict early and to get help.
"Maybe you seek out more interaction therapy focused on the relationship," he said. "There are a lot of great treatment approaches working with the child and the parent together in a room to learn how to manage their conflict and to interact in a healthier and happier way.
"It's nobody's fault," he said. "You need to pay attention to the relationship."
Learn more about parent-child interaction therapy.