Parents’ Spontaneous Attributions about their Problem Child: Associations with Parental Mental Health and Child Conduct Problems

  • Sophia M. E. Palm
  • Vilas SawrikarEmail author
  • Olivia Schollar-Root
  • Alicia Moss
  • David J. Hawes
  • Mark R. Dadds


Parents’ attributions about their child’s personality and behaviour are known to predict the quality of parent-child interactions and outcomes for the child, including those from parenting interventions. Nothing is known, however, about the quantity and quality of attributions parents use during free speech about their children referred for treatment of behavioural and emotional problems. We tested hypotheses about the types of attributions and associations among parental attributions, parental psychopathology and child conduct problems, using 504 five-minute speech samples (FMSS) coded using the Parent Attribution Speech Sample (PASS) coding system. Both mothers and fathers talked about their thoughts and feelings regarding their children with disruptive behaviour problems (N = 295; 74% male; 3–8 years old). The assessment of spontaneous parental attributions via the PASS coding system was shown to be valid and reliable. Mothers made more negative, dispositional attributions than fathers, however, parents of either gender made, on average, more positive than negative attributions about their children. Parents’ natural attributions about these children with emotional and behavioural problems were rather independent from parents’ own mental health, but were consistently related to child factors. Specifically, across parent gender and across all attribution dimensions, levels of callous-unemotional traits were associated with spontaneous parental attributions above and beyond other child and parent factors. Overall, the results show that parents’ spontaneous speech about referred children contains important information about their causal attributions, and that these are associated with child temperament rather than specific referral symptoms.


Parental attributions Parent attribution measure Conduct problems Callous-unemotional traits 


Compliance with Ethical Standards


NHMRC Project grants 455439, 455372, 568667, and 1041793.

Conflict of Interest

Authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in the current study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study. Details on page 6 under Procedures.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.Google Scholar
  2. Boulet, J., & Boss, M. W. (1991). Reliability and validity of the brief symptom inventory. Psychological Assessment: A Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 3(3), 433–437. Scholar
  3. Bugental, D. B., & Johnston, C. (2000). Parental and child cognitions in the context of the family. Annual Review of Psychology, 51(1), 315–344.Google Scholar
  4. Bugental, D. B., Johnston, C., New, M., & Silvester, J. (1998). Measuring parental attributions: Conceptual and methodological issues. Journal of Family Psychology, 12(4), 459–480. Scholar
  5. Burt, K. B., Van Dulmen, M. H., Carlivati, J., Egeland, B., Sroufe, L. A., Forman, D. R., . . . Carlson, E. A. (2005). Mediating links between maternal depression and offspring psychopathology: The importance of independent data. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46(5), 490–499. Scholar
  6. Dadds, M., & Hawes, D. (2006). Integrated family intervention for child conduct problems: A behaviour-attachment-systems intervention for parents. Bowen Hills, QLD: Australian Academic Press.Google Scholar
  7. Dadds, M. R., Fraser, J., Frost, A., & Hawes, D. J. (2005). Disentangling the underlying dimensions of psychopathy and conduct problems in childhood: A community study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73(3), 400–410. Scholar
  8. Derogatis, L. R., & Melisaratos, N. (1983). The brief symptom inventory: An introductory report. Psychological Medicine, 13(3), 595–605. Scholar
  9. Dix, T. (1993). Attributing dispositions to children: An interactional analysis of attribution in socialization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19(5), 633–643.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Frick, P. J., & Hare, R. D. (2001). The antisocial process screening device: APSD. Toronto: Multi-Health Systems.Google Scholar
  11. Frick, P. J., & White, S. F. (2008). Research review: The importance of callous-unemotional traits for developmental models of aggressive and antisocial behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(4), 359–375. Scholar
  12. Frick, P. J., Ray, J. V., Thornton, L. C., & Kahn, R. E. (2014). Annual research review: A developmental psychopathology approach to understanding callous-unemotional traits in children and adolescents with serious conduct problems. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55(6), 532–548. Scholar
  13. Goodman, R. (1997). The strengths and difficulties questionnaire: A research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 38(5), 581–586. Scholar
  14. Goodnow, J. J. (1988). Parents' ideas, actions, and feelings: Models and methods from developmental and social psychology. Child Development, 59(2), 286–320. Scholar
  15. Hawes, D. J., Price, M. J., & Dadds, M. R. (2014). Callous-unemotional traits and the treatment of conduct problems in childhood and adolescence: A comprehensive review. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 17(3), 248–267. Scholar
  16. Holland, D., & Dadds, M. R. (1997). The diagnostic interview schedule for children, adolescents, and parents. Brisbane: Griffith University.Google Scholar
  17. Hoza, B., Owens, J. S., Pelham, W. E., Swanson, J. M., Conners, C. K., Hinshaw, S. P., et al. (2000). Parent cognitions as predictors of child treatment response in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 28(6), 569–583. Scholar
  18. IBM Corp. Released. (2013). IBM SPSS Statistics for Windows, Version 22.0. Armonk: IBM Corp.Google Scholar
  19. Johnston, C., & Freeman, W. (1997). Attributions for child behavior in parents of children without behavior disorders and children with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65(4), 636–645.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Johnston, C., & Ohan, J. L. (2005). The importance of parental attributions in families of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity and disruptive behavior disorders. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 8(3), 167–182. Scholar
  21. Joiner, T. E., & Wagner, K. D. (1996). Parental, child-centered attributions and outcome: A meta analytic review with conceptual and methodological implications. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 24(1), 37–52. Scholar
  22. Jones, E. E., & Davis, K. E. (1965). From acts to dispositions the attribution process in person perception. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 2, 219–266.Google Scholar
  23. Kaminski, J. W., & Claussen, A. H. (2017). Evidence base update for psychosocial treatments for disruptive behaviors in children. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 46, 477–499. Scholar
  24. Leung, D. W., & Slep, A. M. S. (2006). Predicting inept discipline: The role of parental depressive symptoms, anger, and attributions. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(3), 524–534. Scholar
  25. Mah, J. W., & Johnston, C. (2008). Parental social cognitions: Considerations in the acceptability of and engagement in behavioral parent training. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 11(4), 218–236. Scholar
  26. Malla, A. K., Razarian, S. S., Barnes, S., & Cole, J. D. (1991). Validation of the five minute speech sample in measuring expressed emotion. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 36(4), 297–299. Scholar
  27. Mattek, R. J., Harris, S. E., & Fox, R. A. (2016). Predicting treatment success in child and parent therapy among families in poverty. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 177(2), 44–54. Scholar
  28. Miller, G. E., & Prinz, R. J. (2003). Engagement of families in treatment for childhood conduct problems. Behavior Therapy, 34(4), 517–534.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Dickson, N., Silva, P., & Stanton, W. (1996). Childhood-onset versus adolescent-onset antisocial conduct problems in males: Natural history from ages 3 to 18 years. Development and Psychopathology, 8(2), 399–424. Scholar
  30. Morrissey-Kane, E., & Prinz, R. J. (1999). Engagement in child and adolescent treatment: The role of parental cognitions and attributions. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 2(3), 183–198. Scholar
  31. NVivo qualitative data analysis Software (2012). QSR International Pty Ltd. Version 11 .Google Scholar
  32. Pasalich, D. S., Dadds, M. R., Hawes, D. J., & Brennan, J. (2011). Assessing relational schemas in parents of children with externalizing behavior disorders: Reliability and validity of the family affective attitude rating scale. Psychiatry Research, 185(3), 438–443. Scholar
  33. Patterson, G. R., & Chamberlain, P. (1994). A functional analysis of resistance during parent training therapy. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 1(1), 53–70.Google Scholar
  34. Patterson, G. R., & Maccoby, E. E. (1980). Mothers: The unacknowledged victims. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 45(5), 1–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Pidgeon, A. M. & Sanders, M.R. (2002). Parent’s attributions for Child’s behaviour measure. Unpublished manuscript.Google Scholar
  36. Piotrowska, P. J., Tully, L. A., Lenroot, R., et al. (2017). Mothers, fathers, and parental systems: A conceptual model of parental engagement in programmes for child mental health - connect, attend, participate, enact (CAPE). Clinical Child Family Psychology Review, 20(146), 146–161. Scholar
  37. Reimers, T. M., Wacker, D. P., Derby, K. M., & Cooper, L. J. (1995). Relation between parental attributions and the acceptability of behavioral treatments for their child's behavior problems. Behavioral Disorders, 20(3), 171–178. Scholar
  38. Richters, J. E. (1992). Depressed mothers as informants about their children: A critical review of the evidence for distortion. Psychological Bulletin, 112(3), 485–499.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Rushton, J., Bruckman, D., & Kelleher, K. (2002). Primary care referral of children with psychosocial problems. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 156(6), 592–598. Scholar
  40. Sawrikar, V., & Dadds, M. (2018). What role for parental attributions in parenting interventions for child conduct problems? Advances from research into practice. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 21(1), 41–56. Scholar
  41. Sawrikar, V., Mendoza Diaz, A., Hawes, D., Moul, C., & Dadds, M. (2018a). Why is this happening? A brief measure of parental attributions assessing parents’ intentionality, permanence, and dispositional attributions of their child with conduct problems. Child Psychiatry and Human Development.
  42. Sawrikar, V., Hawes, D., Moul, C., & Dadds, M. (2018b). The role of parental attributions in predicting parenting intervention outcomes in the treatment of child conduct problems. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 111, 64–71. Scholar
  43. Schollar-Root, O., Moss, A., Palm, S., Dadds, MR., & Sawrikar, V. (2017). Speech Sample Coding Manual (Unpublished document), University of Sydney, Australia.Google Scholar
  44. Scott, S., & Dadds, M. R. (2009). Practitioner review: When parent training doesn’t work: Theory-driven clinical strategies. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50(12), 1441–1450. Scholar
  45. Snarr, J. D., Slep, A. M. S., & Grande, V. P. (2009). Validation of a new self-report measure of parental attributions. Psychological Assessment, 21(3), 390–401. Scholar
  46. Sobol, M. P., Ashbourne, D. T., Earn, B. M., & Cunningham, C. E. (1989). Parents' attributions for achieving compliance from attention-deficit-disordered children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 17(3), 359–369.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Walker, L. S. (1985). Mothers' Attributions Regarding the Behavior of Chronically Ill Children. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Los Aengeles, California.Google Scholar
  48. Weiner, B. (1980). A cognitive (attribution)-emotion-action model of motivated behavior: An analysis of judgments of help-giving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(2), 186–200. Scholar
  49. Weiner, B. (2010). The development of an attribution-based theory of motivation: A history of ideas. Educational Psychologist, 45(1), 28–36. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of PsychologyThe University of SydneySydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations