The current study aimed to investigate factors associated with the persistence and change in behavioural difficulties during early childhood.
The study used data from the Growing Up in New Zealand birth cohort. Maternal-rated behavioural difficulties were assessed when children were aged 2 and 4.5 years (N = 5885). The ninetieth percentile of the Strengths and Difficulties total difficulties score was used to identify children who showed serious behavioural difficulties at each time point, with children then categorised as showing no difficulties, improved behaviour, later difficulties, and persistent difficulties. Predictors of interest related to maternal-reported mental health and parenting behaviour, family social support and exposure to physical and verbal inter-parental conflict.
Poor maternal mental health at multiple time points and authoritarian and physical punishment parenting styles were associated with an increased likelihood of developing behavioural difficulties at 4.5 years and showing persistent difficulties from 2 to 4.5 years. Physical punishment and authoritarian parenting styles also mediated the association between a history of verbal inter-parental conflict and both developing later difficulties and persistent difficulties, whereas only physical punishment parenting style mediated this association for a history of physical inter-parental conflict. The only factor that distinguished children who improved from children who persisted was maternal parenting self-evaluation at 9 months; mothers who had a better self-evaluation were more likely to have children who persisted than improved.
These results demonstrate the importance of addressing mothers’ self-reported management of their children’s behavioural difficulties, inter-parental conflict and maternal emotional wellbeing.