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Parenting stress: What are the causes?

Many of us have experienced the emotional swings between joy and panic during the first few days, weeks, and months of being a parent. As children grow, the stresses of parenting change in nature but not necessarily in intensity. Those of us who work with children and families often witness the struggles of parents as they cope with the challenges of building a strong family life. There is no manual on parenting!

In families with certain types of stress or combinations of stressors, however, the parenting role can be overwhelming, and the effects of that stress on children can be devastating. “Parenting stress is an important factor in child development,” says Dr. Richard Abidin, emeritus professor of clinical and school psychology at the University of Virginia and author of the newly revised Parenting Stress Index™ (PSI™-4). “High levels of parenting stress are associated with and predict a wide range of dysfunctional parenting behavior and negative child outcomes. Reduced sensitivity, lack of warmth, harsh—if not abusive—and neglecting behaviors, and the inability to provide a secure and supportive home environment can negatively impact children’s psychological development and educational competence.”

According to Dr. Abidin, the most significant sources of parenting stress fall into three major domains:

  • Child characteristics. Children with behavior or attention problems, medical issues, developmental delays, or other special needs can increase parental stress levels. There has been extensive research linking not only the severity of these characteristics to intensity of parenting stress but also levels of parenting stress to adherence to treatment (Anastopoulos, Guevremont, Shelton, & DuPaul, 1992; Waisbren, Rones, Read, Marsden, & Levy, 2004; Gerson, Furth, Neu, & Fivush, 2004).
  • Parent characteristics. Depression, isolation, inability to form an attachment with the child, or a negative perception of one’s own parenting skills can significantly increase a parent’s stress levels (Shea & Coyne, 2011; Nelson, Stage, Duppong-Hurley, Synhorst, & Epstein, 2007).
  • Situational stressors. Financial strains, divorce, lack of support, military deployment, or family loss are just some of the situations that contribute to high levels of family stress. One study showed that mothers who either are ending a relationship with biological fathers or have started a new relationship with non-biological fathers have much higher levels of parenting stress compared to mothers in a stable co-residing relationship (Cooper, McLanahan, Meadows, & Brooks-Gunn, 2009).

Families with high levels of stress in these domains may be at increased risk for dysfunction in the parent-child relationship.

Parenting stress and child abuse

Research has clearly demonstrated that parenting stress is positively correlated to child abuse potential (Rodriguez & Green, 1997; Whipple & Webster-Stratton, 1991). Considering the impact that parenting stress has on child development as well as its potential as a risk factor for child abuse, the long-term consequences—not only for the child but also for society as a whole—are clear. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services reports that, in 2010, an estimated 695,000 children were victims of maltreatment. More than 80% of victims were maltreated by a parent, and children younger than 1 year had the highest rate of victimization.

Adult survivors of child maltreatment are more likely to have a poor quality of life, with higher levels of chronic diseases and mental health issues, than non-abused adults. “Childhood exposure to abuse and neglect has been a lifetime trajectory of violence perpetration and victimization,” says Dr. Phaedra Corso of the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health (Prevent Child Abuse America, 2012). Child abuse can be a vicious circle, and some families under stress need support to help break the pattern of abuse.

Normal parenting challenges—or a family who needs help?

With the stakes so high, it is essential to distinguish between families with normal levels of stress and families who may need more significant support or intervention. The newly revised Parenting Stress Index™, Fourth Edition (PSI™-4) from PAR is a 120-item inventory that measures stress in the parent-child relationship and identifies the specific sources of that stress. Information from the PSI-4 can help you in designing a treatment plan, setting intervention priorities, and/or following up on the results of an intervention. Common settings for administration of the PSI-4 also include medical centers where children receive care, outpatient therapy settings, and pediatric practices. This edition of the PSI has been improved and updated, with new normative data stratified to match the demographic composition of the 2007 U.S. Census. Validation studies conducted within a variety of non-English speaking populations suggest that the PSI is a robust measure that maintains its validity with diverse cultures.

“Parenting stress is a universal phenomenon that all parents experience to one degree or another,” explains Abidin, who is also the author of the PSI-4. “What we have learned is that high levels of stress relate to a variety of dysfunctional parenting behaviors and negative child outcomes. Screening for and evaluating the sources of parenting stress allow for the implementation of prevention and early intervention in both primary health care and education systems.”

More resources

  • April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Child Welfare Information Gateway is an excellent starting point for information on preventing child abuse and neglect.
  • Prevent Child Abuse America is a nonprofit organization dedicated to building awareness, providing education, and inspiring hope to everyone involved in the effort to prevent the abuse and neglect of children. Information about PCA state chapters, as well as advocacy, research, conferences, and events, can be found on their Web site.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Violence Prevention Web site includes a wealth of information on child maltreatment prevention, including data and statistics, risk and protective factors, and prevention strategies.
  • An excellent source of general parenting information for sharing with families, the Child Development Institute offers strategies and tips on topics such as “Parenting 101,” socialization for kids and teens, parent-child communication, single parenting, divorce, and more.