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Mother-child play and maltreatment: a longitudinal analysis of emerging social behavior from infancy to toddlerhood

Mother-child play of maltreating and nonmaltreating families was analyzed when infants were 12 months old (Time 1), and 2 years old (Time 2), as a context to examine children’s developing cognitive and social skills. At Time 1, infants from abusing families demonstrated less independent and more imitative behavior during play than did infants from neglecting and nonmaltreating families, suggesting a delay in emerging social behaviors. In this longitudinal follow-up, mother-child play was reassessed 1 year later (N = 78), with a focus on children’s engagement in nonplay and pretend play and on children’s abilities to initiate social exchanges and respond to parental requests. Play and social behavior were coded from semistructured and unstructured play paradigms at both time points. Maternal attention-directing behavior and limit setting also was assessed. At Time 2, children from abusing, neglecting, and nonmaltreating families did not differ in cognitive play complexity. However, children from abusing families engaged in less child-initiated play than did children from neglecting and nonmaltreating families, demonstrating less socially competent behavior. Longitudinal analyses revealed child initiated play at Time 2 was negatively associated with abuse and with maternal physical attention directing behavior at Time 1. Child negative reactivity at Time 2 was positively associated with Time 1 maternal physical behavior and child imitation and with Time 2 maternal controlling behavior. Implications for early intervention efforts are emphasized.