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Toddlers with Early Behavioral Problems at Higher Family Demographic Risk Benefit the Most from Maternal Emotion Talk

Brophy-Herb, Holly E. PhD*; Bocknek, Erika London PhD, LMFT; Vallotton, Claire D. PhD*; Stansbury, Kathy E. PhD; Senehi, Neda MA*; Dalimonte-Merckling, Danielle MA*; Lee, Young-Eun MA*

Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: September 2015 - Volume 36 - Issue 7 - p 512–520
doi: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000196
Original Articles

Objective: To test the hypothesis that toddlers at highest risk for behavioral problems from the most economically vulnerable families will benefit most from maternal talk about emotions.

Methods: This study included 89 toddlers and mothers from low-income families. Behavioral problems were rated at 2 time points by masters-level trained Early Head Start home visiting specialists. Maternal emotion talk was coded from a wordless book-sharing task. Coding focused on mothers' emotion bridging, which included labeling emotions, explaining the context of emotions, noting the behavioral cues of emotions, and linking emotions to toddlers' own experiences. Maternal demographic risk reflected a composite score of 5 risk factors.

Results: A significant 3-way interaction between Time 1 toddler behavior problems, maternal emotion talk, and maternal demographic risk (p = .001) and examination of slope difference tests revealed that when maternal demographic risk was greater, more maternal emotion talk buffered associations between earlier and later behavior problems. Greater demographic risk and lower maternal emotion talk intensified Time 1 behavior problems as a predictor of Time 2 behavior problems. The model explained 54% of the variance in toddlers' Time 2 behavior problems. Analyses controlled for maternal warmth to better examine the unique contributions of emotion bridging to toddlers' behaviors.

Conclusion: Toddlers at highest risk, those with more early behavioral problems from higher demographic-risk families, benefit the most from mothers' emotion talk. Informing parents about the use of emotion talk may be a cost-effective, simple strategy to support at-risk toddlers' social-emotional development and reduce behavioral problems.

*Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI;

Department of Education, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI;

Department of Psychology, Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, MI.

Address for reprints: Holly E. Brophy-Herb, PhD, 3 Human Ecology Building, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824; e-mail:

Supported by a grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (90YF0055/01).

Disclosure: The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Received February , 2015

Accepted June , 2015

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