Mother-child role confusion, child adjustment problems, and the moderating roles of child temperament and sex

The Family Life Project Key Investigators

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Role confusion is a deviation in the parent- child relationship such that a parent looks to a child to meet the parent's emotional needs and abdicates, in part, the parental role in exchange for care, intimacy, or peer support from the child. In addition, a child may initiate role-confused behavior in order to gain closeness to a parent who is otherwise preoccupied by his or her own needs. The current study examined associations between mother- child role confusion at age 5 (we coded role confusion from filmed free-play mother- child interactions) and teacher reports of internalizing and externalizing symptoms, and peer problems, at Grade 1. The sample (N = 557) is from a longitudinal study of families in rural communities, the Family Life Project. Mother-child role confusion predicted internalizing symptoms and peer problems (but not externalizing symptoms) above and beyond other dimensions of maternal parenting (sensitivity and harsh intrusiveness), demographic factors, and prior levels of outcome variables. However, some effect sizes were small, making replication desirable. Temperament and child sex were important moderators: girls with difficult temperaments and boys with easy temperaments were more vulnerable to internalizing symptoms (but not externalizing symptoms or peer problems) in the context of role confusion. We discuss the singular importance of role confusion, a construct that has been largely unrecognized by developmental psychologists until recently, for behavioral outcomes of children as they transition into middle childhood.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1891-1903
Number of pages13
JournalDevelopmental psychology
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2018


  • Child temperament
  • Internalizing and externalizing symptoms
  • Peer problems
  • Role confusion
  • Role reversal

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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