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Bad Economic News Linked to Harsh Parenting

New research finds that anxiety caused by the 2008 economic crash led many mothers to switch to a less-nurturing parenting style.
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The Great Recession has negatively impacted society in many different ways. Increased unemployment. Smaller paychecks. Higher levels of insecurity.

And now we can add: More episodes of maternal misbehavior.

Newly published research finds a link between mothering styles and economic conditions, which apparently degrade in tandem. A research team led by New York University sociologist Dohoon Lee reports the stress and worry caused by the 2008 crash led many mothers to have less patience with their kids.

“Harsh parenting was not positively associated with high levels of unemployment, but rather with increases in the unemployment rate and declines in consumer sentiment,” the researchers write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. To Lee and his colleagues this suggests “the anticipation of adversity was a more important determinant of harsh parenting than actual exposure.”

Mothers engaged in significantly more harsh parenting behaviors following a 10 percent increase in their city’s unemployment rate.

The researchers used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which tracked 4,898 children born in 20 large American cities between 1998 and 2000. The mothers (most of whom were single parents) were interviewed shortly after giving birth, and periodically over the next nine years.

During interviews conducted when their child was three, five, and nine years old, the mothers reported whether they utilized any of 10 harsh parenting techniques. Some of these involved corporal punishment (spanking, slapping, pinching, shaking), while others featured emotional abuse (yelling, swearing, threatening to kick the child out of the house). For each category, the mothers reported how often they had engaged in the behavior over the past year, on a scale from “never” to “more than 20 times.”

When the boy or girl was nine, saliva was collected from both mother and child for genetic testing. The researchers were interested in finding any link between parenting behavior and a few specific genetic markers.

Lee and his colleagues report bad economic news had a negative impact on maternal behavior. Specifically, mothers engaged in significantly more harsh parenting behaviors following a 10 percent increase in their city’s unemployment rate.

Unfortunately, this dynamic was not easily reversed: Improvements in the local economy “were associated with much smaller, statistically insignificant changes in harsh parenting,” they write.

These results were limited to the approximately 50 percent of the women studied—those who fit a specific genetic profile that makes them more sensitive to changes in their environment. Their genetic variation has been linked to poorer efficiency of the brain’s dopamine system, which regulates aggression and impulsivity.

For those who did not share that genetic profile, economic changes (good or bad) had “inconsistent and insignificant effects” on parenting. According to Columbia University’s Irwin Garfinkel, a co-author of the paper, this provides more evidence that some people are “orchids” who wilt in poor conditions, while others are “dandelions” who can survive no matter what.

Of course, that offers little solace to “orchids” who find themselves hitting their kids, or the children who suffer the emotional and physical consequences. As the researchers conclude: “These findings demonstrate the importance of attending to the non-economic costs of macroeconomic changes.”

It appears that many people—even loving mothers—respond to economic worries by literally and figuratively lashing out.