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Moms' financial fears led to more spanking, shouting

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
August 7, 2013 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
As the economy faltered,
As the economy faltered, "anticipation of the disaster" affected how some parents treated their children, new research says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New study finds economic downturn led to more spanking, hitting and yelling by moms
  • "Harsh parenting" got worse as moms felt more uncertain, study says
  • Genetic makeup played a role in whether moms lashed out
  • Researchers: Study shows how financial stress affects a variety of people

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She's a mom of two girls and lives in Manhattan. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Any mom will tell you stress and happy parenting don't often go hand in hand. I know I've had my share of "mom moments" when I raised my voice and lost my cool, and often anxieties about children/husband/work were to blame.

Thankfully, one key stressor was never in the mix for me: financial uncertainty, which a new study says can lead some moms to be much harsher with their kids.

Researchers studied the families of 5,000 children before, during and after the start of the 2007 economic downturn. They found it was the changing economic conditions, not the recession itself, that led to an uptick in mothers threatening, hitting, spanking and shouting. The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"It seems to be the anticipation of the disaster rather than high levels of unemployment themselves, so things were getting really bad when things were getting worse, when the stock market was falling," said one of the study co-authors, Sara McLanahan, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University.

To spank or not to spank: Where do you draw the line?

"Very few people" said they never did any of these things, McLanahan said, but to be identified as "harsh parenting," the behavior had to happen a number of times. "They were doing this stuff a lot."

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Blair Koenig started the STFU, Parents blog after reading a few too many status updates about the bathroom habits of her friends' children. Click through for examples of the 10 worst overshares she sees on her site. (Warning: Some links contain strong language.) Blair Koenig started the STFU, Parents blog after reading a few too many status updates about the bathroom habits of her friends' children. Click through for examples of the 10 worst overshares she sees on her site. (Warning: Some links contain strong language.)
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When the unemployment rate climbed, researchers were surprised to find a drop in the so-called harsher parenting, she said.

"People adjust to really bad things when they know what to expect," she said, explaining the findings. "It's the feeling of being out of control (that) is almost worse."

Not all mothers responded to the economic uncertainty by being tougher on their children. About one-half of mothers studied carried a gene variation that's connected to regulating mood and behavior. Only those mothers increased harsh parenting as economic conditions worsened. The struggling economic conditions did not affect the levels of shouting, threatening and spanking among mothers without the gene variation.

As economic conditions improved, the mothers with the gene variation were less likely than other mothers to engage in harsh parenting.

"When things were getting better, this same group of people actually responded more positively, so they're not just worriers," McLanahan said. "They're just sensitive to what's going on. So when things are getting worse, they seem to do worse. When things are getting better, they seem to do better."

The recession generation

Still, as the economy failed, the increase in harsh parenting was greater than the decrease in tough parenting later when the financial outlook improved.

"It is scarier when you are losing something," she said, compared with how good you feel "when you're gaining."

McLanahan and her fellow co-authors from New York and Columbia universities and Pennsylvania State University's College of Medicine knew that economic strains of the past, such as the Great Depression, affected families. Since they were already gathering data for another study during and after the economic crash, they decided to explore the impact of the Great Recession. Fathers were interviewed for the study, but their DNA was not collected.

"It is affecting a lot more people than just who becomes actually unemployed (and) loses their house," McLanahan said. "We know it affects those people, but this is saying there's a lot more people who are reacting."

The researchers didn't study the impact of the yelling, threatening and slapping on children, but previous research shows those actions can lead to behavior problems, including depression, shyness and withdrawal, as well overly aggressive behavior, McLanahan said.

"We know harsh parenting is bad," she said.

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She and her fellow researchers plan to follow up with the families in the study to determine the effects on children.

The implications from the study, for policymakers and all of us, are realizing how many more people might be affected by economic uncertainty -- not just an adult going through a layoff or foreclosure, McLanahan said.

"Being able to try to promote as much security as you can is a good idea," she said.

Was the recession a hard time for you as a parent? How did your responses toward your children change during the financial crisis? How did you cope then, and how are you coping today?

We'd like to hear from you for a follow-up story. Please share your stories in the comments, or via e-mail at cnn.features.sources@gmail.com.

Follow Kelly Wallace on Twitter and like CNN Living on Facebook.

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