Negative Relational Schemas Predict the Trajectory of Coercive Dynamics During Early Childhood

Justin D. Smith, Thomas J. Dishion, Daniel S. Shaw, Melvin N. Wilson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Coercive family processes are germane to the development of problem behaviors in early childhood, yet the cognitive and affective underpinnings are not well understood. We hypothesized that one antecedent of early coercive interactions is the caregiver’s implicit affective attitudes toward the child, which in this article are termed relational schemas. Relational schemas have previously been linked to coercion and problem behaviors, but there has yet to be an examination of the association between relational schemas and trajectories of coercion during early childhood. We examined 731 indigent caregiver-child dyads (49 % female children) from a randomized intervention trial of the Family Check-Up. Predominantly biological mothers participated. A speech sample was used to assess relational schemas at age 2. Coercive interactions were assessed observationally each year between ages 2 and 4. Caregiver and teacher reports of children’s oppositional and aggressive behaviors were collected at age 7.5 and 8.5. Path analysis revealed that negative relational schemas were associated with less steep declines in coercion during this period, which in turn were predictive of ratings of oppositional and aggressive behaviors at age 7.5/8.5 after controlling for baseline levels, positive relational schemas, child gender, ethnicity, and cumulative risk. Intervention condition assignment did not moderate this relationship, suggesting the results represent a naturally occurring process. Given the link between persistent early coercion and later deleterious outcomes, relational schemas that maintain and amplify coercive dynamics represent a potential target for early intervention programs designed to improve parent–child relationships.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)693-703
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Abnormal Child Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 15 2015


  • Affective attitudes
  • Coercion
  • Dynamic systems
  • Relational schemas

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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