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Mother-son ties change over time, influence teen boys' behavior

Relationships between mothers and their sons change during childhood and adolescence, however, not all relationships change in the same way. A Wayne State University-led study has found that how the relationships change may affect boys' behavior when they become teens.

The research team, led by Christopher Trentacosta, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Wayne State University, looked at 265 mother-son pairs from low-income families in Pittsburgh, starting when the boys were 5 through adolescence. The families were taking part in the Pitt Mother and Child Project, an ongoing longitudinal project examining vulnerability and resilience in low-income boys.

For each of the pairs, the study looked at the family's neighborhood, the mother's relationship with her romantic partner, the quality of parenting provided by the mother and the child's temperament. It also assessed the level of conflict and warmth between mothers and sons, and the boys' delinquent behavior, relationships with best friends and sense of morality during adolescence.

Mothers of boys who had a difficult temperament when they were toddlers reported that their relationships with the boys included a high level of conflict and lower levels of closeness over time. When mothers had better relationships with their significant others, they tended to form closer bonds with their sons that lasted throughout childhood and adolescence. Boys who experienced a lot of conflict with their mothers were more likely to engage in delinquent behavior as teens. Boys who had a close relationship with their mothers were more likely to have a better relationship with their best friends during the teen years.

According to Trentacosta, this paper is important because it tracks two aspects of mother-son relationships — conflict and warmth — from age five to 15. Both of these aspects tended to decrease over the 10-year period.

"However, a small subset of the boys continued to have very high levels of conflict with their mothers into adolescence," said Trentacosta. "Similarly, a small group of boys experienced a steep decline in warmth with their mothers over time."

Also important is that conflict in mother-son relationships matters for later "antisocial behavior" (delinquency), whereas warmth between mothers and sons is linked to the quality of boys' relationships with peers. "So, there is support for these two distinct aspects of relationships and how they matter for different aspects of boys' adjustment in adolescence," said Trentacosta.

"Chris Trentacosta is a highly productive researcher whose research focuses on the development of emotional and social competence in children and adolescents with a special emphasis in high-risk children and families," said R. Douglas Whitman, Ph.D., chair of psychology at WSU. "This study is typical of the importance of his research program for social policy; it adds to the literature showing that strong family bonding between children and parents is critical to the successful adjustment of the child in adolescence and, later, as capable and successful adults."

The study, supported by the National Institutes of Health, can be found in the current issue of Child Development. Other researchers involved in the study include Michael M. Criss, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University; Daniel S. Shaw, Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh; Eric Lacourse, Ph.D., University of Montreal; Luke W. Hyde, M.S., University of Pittsburgh; and Thomas J. Dishion, Ph.D., University of Oregon.

Wayne State University is one of the nation's pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world. For more information about research at Wayne State University, visit

Julie O'Connor | EurekAlert!
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