Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Master of Science




Hayden, Elizabeth P.

2nd Supervisor

Mitchell, Derek G. V.



Parenting is a consistent predictor of child externalizing symptoms; however, the role of caregiving variability (i.e., variation in a caregiver’s parenting behaviour) is poorly understood. We examined whether characteristic parenting style and parenting variability predicted externalizing symptoms in 409 children (Mage = 3.43 at baseline, 208 girls). We assessed parent positive affectivity (PPA), hostility, and parenting structure at child age three using three behavioural tasks designed to vary in context, examining variability by modeling a latent difference score reflecting the range for each dimension. We assessed children’s symptoms at ages three, five, eight, and 11. Lower hostility predicted fewer age three symptoms for children with lower impulsivity. Higher PPA predicted a more decreasing slope and PPA variability predicted a less decreasing slope, both specifically for children with higher impulsivity. Results demonstrate the differential roles parenting style and variability play in the development of child externalizing psychopathology.

Summary for Lay Audience

Externalizing psychopathology is a term that describes a pattern of aggression, rule-breaking, disinhibition, attentional problems, and/or hyperactivity. The development of these problems depends on both the child’s temperament (i.e., early features of personality), and the environment in which they grew up. One important aspect of a child’s environment is the parenting they received.

In this study, we collected data from children and their parent when children were three, five, eight, and 11 years old. When children were three years old, we examined parent positive affectivity (i.e., expressions of positive emotions from the parent), hostility (e.g., harsh tone, blaming the child), and parenting structure (e.g., taking charge of the situation, providing directives), across three tasks. Specifically, we wanted to examine the impact of variability in these dimensions, in other words how much the parent varies in these behaviours across the different tasks. We also examined child temperament through 12 different behavioural tasks, focusing on child impulsivity (i.e., high responding to rewards and difficulty inhibiting behaviour). At each of the follow-up timepoints, parents completed a questionnaire on their child’s externalizing symptoms.

We were interested in whether parenting variability was related to children’s symptoms at age three, but also in the extent to which they increased or decreased in symptoms throughout childhood. On average, children tended to decrease in externalizing symptoms as they aged. We found that lower hostility was related to fewer symptoms at age three, specifically when children were naturally high in impulsivity. Higher positive affectivity, and variability in positive affectivity, were related to a less steep decrease in symptoms over time, specifically for children high in impulsivity. We did not find any relationships between parenting structure and externalizing symptoms.

These findings demonstrate that variability in parenting shows links to child externalizing symptoms, independent of the parent’s overall parenting style. Specifically, it shows that when parents are inconsistent in their displays of positive emotions, this may be detrimental to children’s development and lead to more problems later on.