Study shows link between working memory and parental negativity

As parents, how many have, at one time or another, lashed out at their children when they exhibit defiant behavior? Most parents can answer “yes” on occasion.  

But for some parents, lashing out is the norm rather than the exception. This parental reactive negativity is one of the most consistent factors leading to child abuse and may also reinforce adverse behavior in children.


A new test examines a mother's physiological activity. In a new project, researchers have added a unique dimension, which examines the mother’s physiological (brain and heart) activity in addition to working memory when performing the same tasks.

A recent study in the Department of Psychology in Virginia Tech’s College of Science and two other universities, suggests that parents with poorer working memory skills are less likely to be able to control their emotions with their children. 

Working memory is an aspect of short-term memory that is involved in the integration, processing, disposal, and retrieval of information. Tasks of the working memory include the active monitoring or manipulation of information or behaviors. Working memory enables humans to reinterpret or reappraise an event or situation, such as a child’s oppositional behavior, to better understand the causes and thereby regulate our emotional response.

“Angry, oppositional behavior in children is aversive and challenging to parents,” said Kirby Deater-Deckard, professor of psychology, who, along with colleagues at Ohio State and Case Western Reserve universities, observed mothers and their children while they completed two potentially frustrating tasks that required cooperation. “To avoid responding reactively to oppositional behavior, a parent must appraise the situation and respond in a way that promotes regulation of her or his own negative emotions and thoughts as well as those of the child.”


A child wears a cap during a test of working memory. Research conducted by Martha Ann Bell, professor of psychology at Virginia Tech, measures physiological activity while studying working memory in infants and young children.

The research team studied more than 200 mothers and their twin children between the ages of 4 and 7. The mothers were observed working with each twin separately on two challenging tasks: drawing pictures using an Etch-a-Sketch and moving a marble through a tilting maze. Mothers were measured on behaviors such as verbal and nonverbal expressions of anger, frustration, or annoyance and verbal and nonverbal manipulation of the child or games. Each mother also completed a test of working memory and other cognitive skills. 

Deater-Deckard, who authored the book Parenting Stress (Yale University Press 2004), found that reactive negativity was evident only among mothers with poorer working memory.

“Cognitive reappraisal is essential for effective emotion and behavioral regulation in the parent,” Deater-Deckard said. “We found that sibling differences in challenging behaviors were associated with maternal negativity but only among mothers with poorer working memory skills.”

Preliminary unpublished results from follow-up analyses of the same study found that this working memory “effect” was evident only if there was a large discrepancy between the child’s observed behavior during the testing session and the mothers’ conception of the child’s challenging behaviors. Furthermore, the working memory “effect” may not be present at all, for mothers in households with chronically high levels of disorder and chaos.


A monitor shows brain activity during completion of a challenging memory test. A monitor shows brain activity during completion of a challenging memory test.

“Although preliminary, these latest results suggest that parents’ cognitive regulation may be most important when the ‘situational’ uncertainty is high, such as when the child’s misbehavior is unexpected,” Deater-Deckard said. “But these processes may be overwhelmed if the home environment is highly unpredictable.”

Deater-Deckard said there are effective strategies for reducing negative reactivity. “For most parents, our goals should include protecting our cognitive and decision-making tools of mind, by minimizing fatigue and stress and by not trying to parent when we are highly distracted,” he said. “As a parent of two children, I know this is easier said than done. But if we can do that, it may help ensure that even in challenging times for the family, parents are able to maintain control and not become harsh and reactive.”


Kirby Deater-Deckard Kirby Deater-Deckard

Ultimately, he said, the goal of his research is to improve education and intervention efforts to support positive parenting and reduce risk of child abuse and maltreatment.

Cognitive neuroscience of parenting is a rapidly growing area of psychology. While there have been studies in the past on working memory and other aspects of cognitive regulation of emotions and behavior in adults, Deater-Deckard’s studies are among the first to apply this concept to parenting.

“This work is happening in a broader context of rapidly growing interest in the cognitive neuroscience of parenting,” he said. “The vast majority of us become parents. Even for those who are well prepared for the role, it can be challenging and stressful. We hope our research will benefit a wide range of the population who desire to be better, more effective parents.”

Touch of Tech: Memory Skills and Parenting

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  • For more information on this topic, contact Catherine Doss at (540) 231-5035.

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