How family stress affects child development

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Sad Child

Family stress, such as financial problems, can strongly influences children’s physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development. Therefore, it is important to understand how this happens and what we can do to reduce the risk.

In a review newly published in Current Opinion in Psychology, researchers summarized the impact of economic hardship on children development.

Economic hardship in a family includes low income or negative financial events (e.g., job loss). The hardship can cause economic pressures, such as difficulty in paying bills and being unable to purchase daily necessities.

Economic hardship and pressures can lead to parents’ psychological distress. For instance, low income and job loss predict depression, helplessness, anxiety, and hospitality in parents.

Parents’ psychological distress may cause problems in marriage. The couple tends to have more conflicts with each other and less support for each other.

Parents’ psychological distress can also disrupt their parenting. For example, when parents are depressed, they may be not sensitive to and supportive of their children’s needs.

They also may spend less time with their children and be harsh to them. Some parents can become over-controlling and even abuse their children.

Importantly, the disrupted parenting mainly happens in parents of young children before adolescence.

Disrupted parenting is related to behavior problems in childhood and adolescence. Children may have low literacy and math performance, and adolescents may have drinking problems and internalizing disorders (e.g., keeping problem to themselves).

Under family stress, if parents can use positive parenting, they will improve children’s well-being.

For example, parents showing warm and supportive attitudes to their children can help the children develop secure attachment and healthy eating behaviors. In addition, children will show less risky behaviors and internalizing symptoms.

One important way to reduce the impact of family stress on children is getting social support. This will lead to more effective parenting and better children development.  Parents can also learn useful coping strategies to reduce their depression.

Being optimizing and endorsing family values are also important. They can reduce internalizing disorders and make warm parenting. Problem-solving skills can reduce hostile and angry behaviors.


Citation: Masarik AS, Conger RD. (2017). Stress and child development: a review of the Family Stress Model. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13: 85-90. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.05.008
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