Menus Subscribe Search
harsh-parenting

(ILLUSTRATION: ANTON BRAND/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Bad Economic News Linked to Harsh Parenting

• August 05, 2013 • 12:00 PM

(ILLUSTRATION: ANTON BRAND/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research finds that anxiety caused by the 2008 economic crash led many mothers to switch to a less-nurturing parenting style.

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.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.