Mothers’ Aversion Sensitivity and Reciprocal Negativity in Mother–Child Interactions: Implications for Coercion Theory

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Coercion theory well characterizes the behavioral aspects that often lead to dysfunctional family processes. Recent conceptualizations have incorporated emotion into models of coercive interactions, yet empirical evidence has been limited. In this study, repeated measures of mother–child dyads (N = 319) were assessed over the course of 2 years to examine whether within-mother (i.e., intraindividual) levels of aversion sensitivity—their negative emotional arousal when faced with aversive child behavior—are associated with four known components of coercive parent–child interactions: initiation, length, frequency, and the tendency to end the negative cycle. During multiple assessments over 2 years, conflictual conversations between newly divorced mothers (Mbaseline age = 36.8, SDbaseline age = 6.6; 64% non-Hispanic White) and their 4 to 11-year-old children (Mbaseline age = 7.77, SDbaseline age = 2.0; 52% female) were observed and microcoded. Forty-seven observed child behaviors were ranked from low to high aversive. Mothers’ general rates of negative emotional expression and the rates at which their negative expression increased as children’s behavior became increasingly aversive (i.e., their aversion sensitivity) were recorded. Results were consistent with coercion theory, revealing significant within-dyad associations between mothers’ aversion sensitivity and all four components of coercive parent–child interactions. These findings suggest the importance of understanding the functions that parents’ intraindividual emotional processes have in difficult, coercive family processes. Understanding such processes holds promise for clarifying how to intervene to reduce parent–child interactions known to be problematic for children’s development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2239-2251
Number of pages13
JournalDevelopmental Psychology
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • Aversive parenting
  • Coercive family process
  • Emotional processes
  • Parents’ negative reactivity

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Demography
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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