In the spur of the moment when parents are faced with a toddler tantrum, psychologically distressed mothers adopt harsher parenting by reprimanding their children more intensively than other mothers. This is especially true for those who live in financial hardship or who lack social support.
These are the central findings of new research by Cheti Nicoletti, Emma Tominey and Valentina Tonei, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Warwick in April 2019. Their study of time use data on children in Australia shows that parents’ planned style of parenting affects their reactions to a tantrum, but some deviate from their planned response more than others.
Psychological studies have shown that the way parents interact with their child in stressful situations can have a direct impact on their child’s wellbeing and in their behaviour later in life. This makes it very important to identify how parents choose their parenting strategy when raising their children.
This study analyses parental reactions to stressful situations with their children aged 2-3 years old, which the researchers identify by considering episodes of temper tantrums.
Tantrums may happen for many reasons, for example, because children are tired, hungry or uncomfortable. They are very common among children aged 2-4 and represent the way that children learn how to regulate their behaviour. These tantrum episodes create very stressful situations that make it harder for parents to engage in activities with their child.
The researchers employ time use diaries from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, which provide details on the time children spend in a day on a set of activities and on whether the child was alone, with parents or with other people.
Using this information, it is possible to identify when a child has a tantrum episode and how parents behave in such situation. The research focuses on the most frequent types of reactions, which are reprimanding and comforting. The authors also consider parents’ reports on their planned parenting strategies.
When investigating parenting behaviour, economists generally assume that parents have full information about their child’s skills and behave in a way that is best for their child. Instead, this study finds that parents’ instantaneous reaction to a situation of conflict with their child is different from what they plan to do.
The results show that parents’ planned parenting style does indeed affect their reaction to the tantrum, but that for some groups of parents the deviations from their planned response is larger than for others.
Specifically, mothers who are psychologically distressed tend to over-react by being 11-15% more likely to reprimand the child for more than 15 minutes and 19% more likely to reprimand their children for up to 15 minutes. These effects are amplified by financial hardship and lack of a social support group.
There have been well-documented increases in mental health problems of mothers across time, and this study identifies a channel through which the mental health of mothers can translate into poor outcomes for their children – through parenting style.
It is the mothers who are particularly vulnerable, not just in terms of mental health but also financial hardship or socially isolated who have difficulty mediating a stressful environment with their children.
PARENTS' RESPONSES TO CHILDREN’S BEHAVIOURS: Evidence from time use diaries by Cheti Nicoletti, Emma Tominey and Valentina Tonei
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Postdoctoral Research Associate at University of York