Researchers suggest that reactive negativity happens due to poor working memory, which plays a crucial role in controlling emotions.
Working memory allows an individual to consider information we have and reason quickly when deciding what to do, as opposed to reacting automatically, without thinking, to something.
For parents, it is particularly important to maintain calm with their misbehaving children.
But parents, sometimes, can't help but react negatively towards their kids when they act badly.
Chronic parental reactive negativity is one of the most consistent factors leading to child abuse and may reinforce adverse behaviour in children.
During the study, researchers examined the link between working memory and parental reactive negativity.
Mothers of same-sex twins participated in this study. Researchers visited the participants' homes and videotaped each mother as she separately interacted with each twin as they participated in two frustrating tasks (drawing pictures with an Etch-A-Sketch and moving a marble through a tilting maze). In addition, the mothers completed a battery of tests measuring various cognitive abilities, including working memory.
They found that mothers whose negativity was most strongly linked with their child's challenging behaviours were those with the poorest working memory skills.
The authors said, "for mothers with poorer working memory, their negativity is more reactive because they are less able to cognitively control their emotions and behaviours during their interactions with their children."
To avoid responding reactively to bad behaviour, parents must be able to regulate their own negative emotions and thoughts, the researchers added.
The study appears in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.