Conclusions

Findings of the Boston Community Violence Project highlight the importance of examining a broad picture of psychosocial factors when analyzing preschool problems. The influence of the combined sets of psychosocial variables identified in our model of community violence explained a substantial amount (43-34%) of the variance of preschool internalizing and externalizing behavior problems, respectively. The magnitude of risk accumulation as a pathogenic influence for this multi-problem sample is substantial, placing a significant burden on the ability of these young children to bounce back or to become resilient under their current circumstances of added adversity (Masten, 1994). Our results lend support for a multidimensional model for preschool problems in that multiple factors are implicated in the behavioral variation of child problems for this high risk preschool sample. Specifically, family violence and impaired maternal functioning are added risk factors for the development of child psychopathology related to community violence exposure; a finding previously found among adolescents at risk for antisocial behavior (Forehand et al., 1998).

A unique contribution of the Boston Community Violence Project is that maternal functioning plays a crucial intervening role in predicting preschool problems by diminishing or intensifying young children's behavioral reaction to violent social environments. When maternal functioning is optimum, as reflected by self-reports of good health status, low levels of global psychological distress, and observed positive parenting, children show fewer internalizing and externalizing behavior problems. Conversely, when maternal functioning is compromised, as reflected by reported poor health, high levels of global psychological distress, and low levels of observed positive parenting, children show internalizing and externalizing behavior problems, and increased risk for child psychopathology. Our findings suggest that, among the comprehensive set of psychosocial factors examined, those related to maternal adaptation to community violence are crucial to child functioning, exacerbating or buffering children's behavioral adaptation to the shared toxic social environment. Mothers who showed impaired functioning, particularly high psychological distress, but who also displayed less positive parenting behaviors, may be less equipped to buffer their children's experiences of community violence. In turn, children of better functioning mothers display fewer behavior problems.

Different psychosocial factors are implicated in child internalizing and externalizing problems. After accounting for the influence of the demographic and family violence blocks, the maternal functioning block (physical health, global distress, and positive parenting) accounted for the largest percentage of internalizing problems (33%). In contrast, although still substantial, maternal functioning accounted for a lesser percentage (half in magnitude) of child externalizing problems (16%). The distinct influence of risk stemming from the different ecological levels suggests that the trajectories of internalizing and externalizing behavioral problems may be different. Our findings suggest that factors which contribute to the presence of child internalizing behavior may not be the same ones as those for externalizing behavior problems. For example, demographic characteristics may play a role in the emergence of externalizing, but not so for internalizing behavior problems. Older children with mothers of low education level from nonimmigrant status may be more likely to show externalizing behavior problems than younger children with mothers of higher education level, and immigrant status. Likewise, we found that family violence is important for the emergence of externalizing, but less so for internalizing behavior problems. Particularly, partner violence to child is related to externalizing behavior problems, suggesting the crucial role of social learning influences in the family. Although present only in a small minority of homes, children who experienced aggression from male partners (i.e., child abuse) show externalizing behavior problems, such as aggressive and destructive behavior. The prior association between exposure to child abuse and child externalizing behavior problems (Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 1997) is supported for the preschool children in this sample and can be understood within a social learning perspective, in which young children may reenact in their behavior the violence that they experience in their home environment.

Blind ratings of positive parenting (low power control, high involvement, and positive affective tone) contributed to fewer child internalizing and externalizing behavior problems, highlighting the crucial role of the quality of parenting. Among children exposed to family violence there is wide support for the relationship between positive parenting and fewer child problems (Margolin & John, 1997). With an improved methodology in a preschool sample, our study replicates this association, after controlling for other psychosocial correlates of positive parenting, for example, maternal education, child age, and maternal stress. On the other hand, the notion that negative parenting is a detrimental factor for preschool problems was not supported for this sample. We found that mothers rated as displaying more negative parenting (defined here as high power control; low involvement; and negative affect) during the toy cleaning up task were not more likely to report more child problems than those with less negative parenting. This is surprising given, for example, the strong association between coercive parenting and child problems (Patterson et al., 1989). It is also possible that negative parenting (particularly when it involves a power coercion component) may not have a detrimental impact for ethnic minority children (Deater-Deckard, Dodge, Bates & Pettit, 1998). From a methodological perspective, it may be that our negative parenting rating gathered in a videotaped structured task may not have detected sufficient sample variation needed for the correlational analyses. Extreme forms of negative parenting (i.e., shouting or hitting) are rarely observed when mothers know they are being videotaped. It is also possible that this brief video sequence may have not solely tapped into the quality of parenting but into other domains such as social desirability and child temperament in unknown ways.

The assumption that exposure to chronic community violence is a potent risk factor is attenuated by our new data. We had anticipated a stronger effect of exposure to chronic community violence on child problems, which did not occur. A focus of this study was to assess whether or not exposure to chronic community violence contributes to preschool problems in unique ways, different from the influence of other competing, and better known, psychosocial factors. Given the comprehensiveness of the predictor variables, by entering exposure to chronic community violence last in the model, we imposed a stringent test for associations among variables known to be highly correlated with each other. Beyond known risk factors, such as maternal education and child age, and family characteristics, we found that exposure to chronic community violence had only a minor influence on preschool problems. Maternal reports of chronic community violence contributed in the magnitude of 3-4% to the variance of internalizing behavior problems and externalizing behavior problems, respectively, after demographic variables, family violence, and maternal functioning effects were taken into consideration.

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