A community sample of 96 mother-child dyads participated in a study evaluating the extent to which directly observed differences in maternal parenting behavior could be predicted on the basis of both global and proximal maternal reports of child behavior problems and personal distress. To allow for simultaneous testing of a set of relations and make tentative causal inferences, a structural equation modeling approach was used. When the analysis was conducted on the entire sample, results indicated that global and to a lesser extent proximal measures of child behavior problems and personal distress made modest contributions to dysfunctional parenting, with neither child behavior problems or personal distress playing a more important role than the other. When the sample was divided into low (
n= 54) and high ( n= 42) socioeconomic disadvantage (SED) families, a different picture emerged. In low disadvantage families, parenting was most strongly predicted by mothers' proximal reports of their children's behavior; whereas in high disadvantage families, parenting was best predicted by mothers' proximal reports of their own personal distress. Results are interpreted in light of Wahler and Dumas' (1989) attentional hypothesis. It suggests that mothers who do not experience chronic sources of distress (such as SED) attend and respond to their children's behavior in a fairl accurate and consistent manner, but that mothers who experience chronic distress are unable to attend effectively to their children, responding to them often in light of the many stressors to which they are exposed, rather than in light of the children's actual behavior.