Coping as a Moderator Between Parents’ Stress and Parenting Quality
- Elizabeth K. Wilson
Previous literature has shown that the quality of parenting is vulnerable to stressors such as daily hassles, financial hardship, and work-related stress, to name a few (Leinonen et al., 2002). Longer workdays for parents have been shown to create stress and decrease family interaction time (Lerner & Galambos, 1991). Fathers’ work stress translates into negative feelings and more disciplinary parenting (Galambos et al., 1995) while mothers’ work stress causes them to withdraw from their children (Repetti & Wood, 1997). Both parents have less closeness and are accepting of children when affected by stress (Galambos et al., 1995). Parents who are forced to work longer hours or multiple jobs because of financial situations face even more added stress. When experiencing financial hardship, parents make adjustments to living such as canceling family trips or postponing important family purchases, which makes them feel like a failure at providing for their family and creates worry (Conger & Elder, 1994). This reflects on their parenting skills in the form of more hostile, punitive parenting behavior (Conger et al., 1992). There has been evidence of more disruptive family functioning when parents report having more daily difficulties (Repetti & Wood, 1997).
According to the Family Systems Perspective, matters at the individual level, such as parenting behavior or the impact of stress, fully understood only by considering the larger network of interdependent relationships within the family (Minuchin, 1985). The spillover hypothesis posits that behavior and affect of the same valence transfer directly from one situation or relationship within the family to another, such that negative interactions in one situation spillover as negative interactions in another (Nelson et al., 2009). Marital distress is related to disruptions in parenting and quality of parent-child relationship – both mothers and fathers were more likely to engage in hostile rather than authoritative parenting when under stress in the marriage (Conger & Elder, 1994; Conger et al., 1992).
Stress on parents in the workplace, in their relationships, and even inconveniences throughout the day will undoubtedly spillover into other aspects of their lives, especially parenting, but how do coping strategies modify this effect differentially for mothers and fathers? Coping is an attempt to alter our circumstances, or the way we perceive them, to make them seem more favorable so that we are able to make it through the situation with a more positive outlook (Lazarus, 1993). Coping is a resource that has been shown to buffer the negative effects of a stressful event (Gayman et al., 2014). Using active coping strategies, which involve facing the problem head-on, is thought to be a more adaptive way of dealing with stress, while avoidance coping is less adaptive. Emotion-focused coping is a type of coping that could be classified as active coping if one is changing his or her appraisal of a situation to a positive appraisal. This type of coping is seen more commonly in women than in men (Holohan & Moos, 1987).
Social withdrawal has been regarded as a type of coping mechanism in response to short-term stress. Social withdrawal could be something as simple as watching television and avoiding interactions with family members. Fathers have been shown to physically position themselves away from family members after a hard day at work. This type of coping mechanism is not recognizable as a type of coping strategy by the person using it, so it may not show up in self-report measures, but has been shown in previous studies that observed family interactions (Campos et al., 2009).
Two main types of coping are approach and avoidant coping, also known as active and passive coping. Approach coping strategies are an attempt to alter or decrease the stressor and engage and control the stressful situation, whereas avoidant coping strategies are an attempt to avoid the stressor by emotionally and sometimes physically disengaging from the problem. Avoidant coping strategies can be manifested in the form of actually leaving the stressful situation or emotionally denying the situation and sometimes “emotionally escaping” the situation by distracting the mind with a television show or abusing substances (Shin et al., 2014).
We posit that parents who utilize active, approach coping strategies will have less negative interactions with their children after a stressful event because of the buffer that this positive coping strategy provides. These parents will face their problems head-on and will be better able to separate these stressful events from a stressful event involving their children. On the other hand, parents who utilize passive, avoidant coping strategies will not have this buffer between stressful events and the interactions with their children. The negative coping strategy will actually perpetuate the spillover of stress onto parent-child interactions. Parents who use avoidant strategies, such as social withdrawal, do not deal with their stressors appropriately and instead avoid them. This negatively affects later interactions with their children because they still have stress built up that they have not dealt with. This stress “spills over” into their ability to parent effectively and positively.
The ability to cope with stress and subsequently provide good quality parenting leads to positive outcomes for children. Parenting quality has important implications for children’s school involvement and language development. Parents who utilize avoidant coping strategies or social withdrawal coping strategies do not use the time they have to give quality parenting to their children, such as reading with them or getting involved in school activities. Instead, they psychically isolate themselves from the family, using what little time they have to be alone (Katz, 2002).
As mentioned previously, when faced with stressors, parents tend to use more hostile than authoritative parenting, and more coercive than constructive parenting (Conger & Elder, 1994; Conger et al., 1992), which could have serious implications for the child’s wellbeing. Hostile and aggressive parenting practices have been associated with attention and hyperactivity problems, conduct and aggression problems, and less prosocial behavior in children. On the other hand, constructive parenting has been associated with improved adjustment and lower level of antisocial behavior in children (Hadzic et al., 2013).
The current study will examine the relationship between parents’ stress and parenting quality and the possible role of coping strategies as a moderator of this relationship. We hypothesize that coping will significantly moderate this link, with positive coping strategies buffering the negative effects of stress on parenting and negative coping strategies perpetuating these negative effects. The role of parent gender in coping strategies will also be examined. We expect that there will be significant gender differences, such that males will utilize more negative and avoidant strategies thus having a greater negative effect on their quality of parenting than females, whom we expect to utilize more positive and active coping strategies.
If coping is shown to be a significant moderator of the relationship between stress and parenting quality, this finding could have serious clinical implications. Clinicians would benefit from focusing on improving coping strategies to help parents deal with stressors that spillover into parenting practices. Parents would benefit from utilizing positive rather than coping strategies.
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