How the Recession Made Mom a Harsher Parent

Asian mother with daughter and son.
(Image credit: wong sze yuen, Shutterstock)

During the recent recession, increased economic instability may have caused American mothers — particularly those with a gene variation that makes them more sensitive to changes in their environment — to engage in harsher parenting practices, a new study finds.

Researchers found that fluctuations in the levels of unemployment and consumer confidence in U.S. cities were associated with increases in severe forms of parenting, including shouting at or spanking children.

"It's commonly thought that economic hardship within families leads to stress, which, in turn, leads to deterioration of parenting quality," study lead author Dohoon Lee, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University, said in a statement. "But these findings show that an economic downturn in the larger community can adversely affect parenting — regardless of the conditions individual families face." [10 Scientific Tips For Raising Happy Kids]

The researchers found that mothers were affected not only by high unemployment rates, but also by the uncertainty of changing unemployment rates, coupled with wavering consumer confidence throughout the recession.

"We thought we would see that as unemployment increases, we see more harsh parenting," said study co-author Sara McLanahan, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. "But we saw harsh parenting early in the recession, right at the time the stock market was crashing, and then it declined. That was a puzzle, and it was then that we got the idea to look at the rate of change in the economy, not just unemployment."

In the genes?

The study also identified a possible genetic basis for the parenting changes. The economic downturn was linked to harsher parenting only in mothers with a variation in a gene called DRD2 Taq1A, which controls the production of dopamine, a behavior-regulating chemical in the brain.

Dopamine is sometimes referred to as the "feel good" chemical in the brain, but the neurotransmitter is also thought to regulate tension and aggression, McLanahan said. The researchers noticed a trend among mothers with this specific gene variant, which made up about half of the mothers studied.

"Mothers who didn't have this gene variation didn't react the same way," McLanahan told LiveScience. The findings also showed that mothers with the gene variant tended to be less harsh when the economy was doing well, which indicates they have a heightened sensitivity to changes in their environment.

The researchers used data from the ongoing Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which follows nearly 5,000 children born in 20 U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000, and is being led by scientists at Princeton University and Columbia University.

Following families

In the Fragile Families study, mothers were interviewed shortly after giving birth, and again when their children were approximately 1, 3, 5 and 9 years old. DNA from saliva samples were also collected from 2,600 mothers and children in the ninth year of the study.

Harsh parenting was measured on a scale commonly used in psychology, which identifies five types of psychological harsh parenting, such as shouts or threats, and five types of corporal punishment, such as spanking or slapping.

In their analysis, the researchers controlled for a number of variables that may affect parenting, including mothers' age, race and level of education as well as the child's gender and age.

The new research suggests changes in the environment, such as widespread economic uncertainty, may affect people differently, based on their genetic makeup.

The detailed findings of the study were published online today (Aug. 5) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Denise Chow
Live Science Contributor

Denise Chow was the assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. Before joining the Live Science team in 2013, she spent two years as a staff writer for, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University.