Economic uncertainty contributes to harsh parenting, study says

Economic uncertainty contributes to parenting troubles, even more than economic hardship itself, a study finds.
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As the economy gets worse, mothers become harsher -- and the changing conditions are key, not how good or bad things are at the moment, researchers said.

Changes for the better lessen the harshness -- but not significantly, the researchers said in Monday’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers also found that mothers’ responses were affected by their genetic makeup.


Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study of nearly 5,000 children born in large American cities, the researchers looked at the effects of the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009.

In earlier times of economic difficulty -- the Great Depression and the Iowa farm crisis -- researchers suggested that economic hardship leads to stress. And that leads to worse parenting. But the current researchers, led by Dohoon Lee of New York University, suggest that what might cause the parenting troubles is the change and the uncertainty.

In monkeys, they wrote, “mothers and offspring do worst when poor and rich environments are varied randomly, suggesting that uncertainy or insecurity may be more stressful than the actual experience of adversity.”

“Harsh parenting was not positively associated with high levels of unemployment but rather with increases in the unemployment rate and declines in consumer sentiment, suggesting that the anticipation of adversity was a more important determinant of harsh parenting than actual exposure,” the researchers wrote.


They also took into account previous research showing that people’s response to losses are greater than their response to gains. (Aren’t we humans a perverse lot?)

But rather than considering mothers’ reactions to be all the result of outside forces, the scientists looked at genotype variance to see whether certain profiles reacted in certain ways. They found that harsh parenting was more pronounced in women carrying a genetic indicator that is associated with fewer dopamine receptors.


Harsh parenting was measured with 10 indicators, both of physical punishment and psychologically harsh treatment.