Aug. 5, 2013 at 3:07 PM ET
Here’s another downside to the Great Recession: It made some moms parent their children more harshly.
A research paper released Monday found that some moms reacted to the recession that ran from 2007 to 2009 by yelling at their kids more, and perhaps even doing more physically aggressive things like grabbing or spanking their children.
The harsher responses weren't just among moms who had lost a job or otherwise been personally hit by the recession. Instead, the researchers found that these moms became harsher parents once the general economy started to deteriorate, perhaps because it made them scared that something bad could happen to them.
“It’s the change in the rate of unemployment - the fear of unemployment - that stimulated the harsh parenting,” said Irwin Garfinkel, a professor on contemporary urban problems in the Columbia University’s School of Social Work, and one of the study’s authors.
The silver lining: Those same moms were actually better parents after the economy improved.
“These mothers, while they do worse in poor environments, they do better in good environments,” Garfinkel said.
The findings were from a long-running study of the families of about 5,000 children born in 20 American cities between 1998 and 2000, called the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, and was conducted by researchers from New York University, Columbia University, Princeton University and Pennsylvania State University’s College of Medicine.
This study did not look at dads, so Garfinkel said they don’t know if dads had a similar reaction.
For this finding, the researchers tested whether the moms had a genetic variance that, the researchers believe, makes people generally more sensitive.
It was among the more sensitive moms that Garfinkel said they observed a bigger increase in harsh parenting during the recession, and the subsequent improvement in parenting when the recession improved.
Garfinkel cautions that there also were incidences of harsh parenting among the other moms. But he said that the increase in harsh parenting during the recession was more noticeable among the sensitive moms, who made up about half of those studied.
Nevertheless, he said that even among the more sensitive moms, it was still a minority and most of them weren't harsh parents.
Other research also has shown that moms and dads have a tougher time being good parents when they are having financial problems.
Rand Conger, distinguished professor of psychology, human development and family studies at the University of California at Davis, said that can lead some parents to be more irritable, depressed and anxious.
“You have only so much emotional energy, and some of that emotional energy that you would typically have for investing in the lives of your children gets lost,” said Conger, who was not involved in this research.
Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, said parents who are dealing with chronic stress or economic stress are sometimes more likely to focus on the bad behavior, and not notice the good things their kids or partners do.
“(They) pay attention to the negative and react more strongly to the negative,” said Coontz, who also was not involved in Garfinkel’s research.
Conger said his research has shown that kids in these environments can do worse in school, or have more social and emotional problems.
Still, Coontz said those effects could be mitigated if the stress doesn’t last very long.
“Kids are fairly resilient with parents who are distracted for short periods of time, or parent badly for short periods of time,” Coontz said. “If you’re bouncing back within a year or so, it may not have a long-term effect.”
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