December 9, 2011
Science Daily/University of Rochester
Parents under long-term stress often find it challenging to tap into the patience, responsiveness, and energy required for effective child rearing. Now research helps to explain why chronic stress and parenting are such a toxic mix. The study finds that ongoing strains, like poverty or depression, disrupt the body's natural stress response, making mothers more likely to engage in a host of problematic parenting behaviors.
"Stress gets under your skin," explains Melissa Sturge-Apple, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and lead author on the Development and Psychopathology paper to be published in October. "It literally changes the way a mother's body responds to the normal demands of small children and those changes make it much harder to parent positively."
Although the effects of stress have been well documented in children and linked to a variety of diseases in adults, this is one of the first studies to look specifically at stress and parenting, according to the researchers. The findings point to the corrosive effects of poverty or depression on an individual's physiology and help to explain why people feel and act the way they do when faced with ongoing psychological or economic pressure, she says.
Although the popular image of depression is of someone who is listless and sad, Sturge-Apple points out that the study confirms what clinicians have long observed: that depression in mothers sometimes is linked to harsh, highly reactive parenting, not subdued mothering. This study helps to explain the biological basis of such behavior; the stress response systems of moms suffering from depression are on high alert, oversensitive to social stressors and unable to calm down, explains Sturge-Apple.