Researchers filmed couples interacting while their children carried out a variety of particular tasks. The level of parental support for each interaction was rated by the research team. Parents also rated their child’s babyhood temperament and behavioral issues at 14 and 24 months.
“If you’re blessed with a happy baby, then you can get them through the ‘terrible twos’ without things getting too bad or lasting too long, by being flexible about the way you play with your child between the age of 14 and 24 months,” said Hughes, who is a joint first author of the study with Rory Devine Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology. “A puzzle game, for example, can turn into quite a different game if you allow your child to take the lead.”
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One task in the study demonstrated just that.
Children were given farm-animal pieces that fit into corresponding cutout holes in a board. Some parents gave their child a lot of help after appearing anxious about their child properly placing the shapes. Others noticed the task was too challenging for their child and they allowed the game to change following their child’s lead.
“We had some children who took two animal pieces from a wooden farm puzzle and started clapping them together, and making a game out of the fact that they made a clapping noise. Here, parents might respond by encouraging the child to make animal noises that match the animals being clapped together,” Devine said.
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“Autonomy supportive parenting is about being flexible, following a child’s lead, and providing just the right amount of challenge,” he continued.
The researchers found the link between executive function — defined by the University of California San Francisco Weill Institute for Neurosciences as "higher-level cognitive skills you use to control and coordinate your other cognitive abilities and behaviors" — at 14 months and reduced behavioral issues at 24 months remained firm. This was also true when controlling factors like a child's language skills and mother-child interaction quality.