Psychology professor studies mother-son relationships, behavior

By Barry Lewis

The South End, Wayne State U. via UWIRE

Wayne State U. psychology assistant professor Christopher Trentacosta has conducted a survey with psychologists from other universities to research the change of mother-son relationships in low-income communities in Pittsburgh, Penn.

Trentacosta said in relationships with high levels of conflict, children were more likely to be more delinquent when they mature than those that have a close relationship to their mothers.

Trentacosta, who has been doing psychology research since he was an undergraduate student at Loyola U. Maryland, said he began working on longitudinal research regarding mother-son relationships in graduate school and continued to research this topic since starting at WSU.

He began his study in 2005 through an internship at U. Pittsburgh, where he conducted an analysis of the Pitt Mother and Child Project. Through this training, Trentacosta received mentoring from U. Pittsburgh’s Dr. Daniel Shaw, who played significant part in this study.

Trentacosta said that through his extensive work at the university and the data collected through PMCP, he was able to publish several scientific journals about mother-son relationships that helped in this study.

Although Trentacosta led the study, it was Shaw who started the PMCP in Pittsburgh because he wanted to study an “at-risk” group of adolescents that may go on to develop delinquent behaviors.

“This study was chosen to uncover the early antecedents of antisocial behavior, focusing heavily on family-related factors, such as parent-child interaction, child temperament, neighborhood quality and other family factors,” Shaw said.

Shaw, who has been involved in conducting research on children’s development since 1982, said he launched this project in 1988. In contrast to his other projects, he has followed this particular group of boys since 1991 and continues to follow them into adulthood.

Trentacosta said the study was interesting to him because he wanted to study boys’ conflict and warmth with their mothers and how this affected their relationships over time.

“I became intrigued by the idea partly because I began to wonder how mother-son relationships change,” Trentacosta said. “Specifically, I wondered whether some mothers and sons tended to have especially problematic relationships in early childhood that continued to be problematic throughout childhood and into adolescence.”

None of the findings were shocking to Trentacosta, however.

“Broadly, the findings highlight the importance of focusing on the family relationships when trying to prevent delinquent behavior,” Trentacosta said. “Several prevention programs for young children, such as the Family Check-Up, have been developed to prevent delinquent behavior by improving family relationships. Similarly, there are psychological treatment approaches, such as Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, that focus on improving parent-child relationships as a way to reduce kids’ behavior problems. My findings suggest that these prevention and intervention approaches are worthwhile.”

Although this study was conducted in Pittsburgh, the findings can benefit parents in Detroit as well.

Trentacosta said he hopes that with the information provided by this study, parents will think about the relationships they have with their children and try improving them.

“If parents feel that they are frequently arguing and struggling with their children,” Trentacosta said, “then they may want to seek help from a psychologist, social worker or counselor who specializes in working with children and families.”

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