Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment in Psychiatry

The Child Development Project

The Child Development Project
The Child Development Project is directed toward understanding the role of family experiences and patterns of social information processing in the development and growth of aggressive conduct problems and conduct disorder in children. The design is a developmental epidemiologic one: 585 preschool children at three geographic sites were selected randomly at kindergarten matriculation to participate in a 12-year longitudinal study. The hypotheses guiding the study were based on social learning theory in developmental psychology and social-information-processing theory in cognitive science, namely, that early family experiences of physical abuse and harsh discipline would predict later serious conduct problems, and that this relation would be mediated by the child’s intervening development of problematic patterns of processing social information. That is, it was hypothesized that early harsh family experiences lead a child to become hypervigilant to hostile cues, to attribute provocations to others’ hostile intentions, to develop aggressive problem-solving styles, and to anticipate that aggressive strategies will result in favorable outcomes. These deviant processing patterns were hypothesized to lead to aggressive conduct problems and conduct disorder.

In-home family interviews and direct observations of family interactions provided information about the child’s experience of physical abuse and harsh discipline in the first 5 years of life. About 12% of this random sample was identified as having experienced physical abuse at some time in their lives, a high rate that is consistent with Straus’s national surveys of community samples. At subsequent annual assessments, video-guided interviews with each child provided measures of the child’s patterns of social information processing. Finally, teacher ratings, peer nominations, direct observations, and school records provided evidence of externalizing conduct problems. The study followed this sample from preschool into high school.

Analyses indicated that the physically abused group of children had a fourfold increase in risk for clinically significant externalizing problems by middle school. This risk could not be statistically accounted for by confounding factors, such as socioeconomic status, child temperament, or exposure to other violent models. Thus it seems that the experience of harsh parenting, especially if extreme, is partially responsible for conduct problems in some children.

Consistent with the original hypotheses, the physically abused children were also at risk for problems with social information processing. Specifically, physically abused children were relatively likely to become hypervigilant to hostile cues, to develop hostile attributional biases, to access aggressive responses to social problems, and to believe that aggressive behaviors lead to desired outcomes. Also consistent with hypotheses, children who demonstrated these processing patterns were likely to develop clinically significant externalizing problems in middle school and high school. Finally, the mediation hypothesis was supported, in that the child’s social-information-processing patterns accounted for about half of the statistical relation between early physical abuse and later conduct problems.

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