Psychology Parenting Stress
by
Kirby Deater-Deckard, Nan Chen, Shereen El Mallah
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 March 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0142

Introduction

Parenting stress is a normal part of the parenting experience. It arises when parenting demands exceed the expected and actual resources available to the parents that permit them to succeed in the parent role. Hypotheses regarding the formation and maintenance of parent-child relationships, and regarding daily “hassles,” predominate in theories of parenting stress. Relationship-focused theories place the emphasis on parenting stress that arises from various domains, including the parent herself or himself, the child, and the qualities of their dyadic relationship. Hassles-focused theories place the emphasis on the various mild to moderate stressors that arise in a typical day or week in the life of a household with young children or adolescents. The “relationship” and “hassles” viewpoints offer unique and complementary perspectives on the causes and consequences of distressed caregiving, with ample empirical evidence supporting both frameworks. Beyond these general frameworks, the literature shows that parental age, gender, psychopathology symptoms, personality characteristics, and social cognitions (e.g., attitudes, self-concept)—as well as child factors such as serious illness or disability, behavioral and emotional problems or disorders, and typical variations in temperament—all contribute to, and are influenced by, the level of parenting stress in the caregiver. Just as importantly, parenting and the parent-child relationship do not exist in a vacuum; rather, they operate within certain stable family, community and cultural contexts that also influence parenting stress, parental behavior, and child or adolescent functioning. High levels of parenting stress impair warm responsive parenting and provoke harsh reactive caregiving. Parenting stress also negatively influences the parent-child relationship, and it is predictive of nonoptimal social-emotional and cognitive outcomes for children and adolescents. Nonetheless, many parents are resilient, and successful coping strategies can be deployed that mitigate the deleterious effects of parenting stress on caregiving, the parent-child relationship, and youth outcomes. The most effective intervention and prevention programs provide growth in parental coping skills and self-efficacy along with reductions in parenting stress, and they result in improvements in family relationships as well as in children’s developmental outcomes.

The authors were supported by NIMH grant R01 MH 99437 and NSF grant DRL-1118571 during the preparation of this article. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation.

General Overviews

All parents experience parenting stress to some extent regardless of their educational levels and the income and social support available to them. The author of Deater-Deckard 2004, an overview of parenting stress, defines it as “a set of processes that lead to aversive psychological and physiological reactions arising from attempts to adapt to the demands of parenthood” (p. 6) and provides insight on the sources of individual difference in parenting stress and how it influences, as well as is influenced by, parental and child adjustment. The sources of parenting stress include major life events, such as child illness, marital decomposition, and parental unemployment, as well as the cumulative daily hassles of childrearing. Parent-child relationship theories of parenting stress represented in Abidin 1992 and others, and daily hassles theories of parenting stress represented in Crnic and Greenberg 1990 and others, offer two complementary perspectives on the origins and consequences of caregiving distress. The Parenting Stress Index in Abidin 1995 is the most widely used measure for quantifying parenting stress levels, although daily hassles measures are also frequently used. Parenting stress processes can be construed as a specific case of a more general stress reaction, described in Lazarus 1999 as containing four components: stressors, parents’ cognitive appraisals of the stressors, coping with the stressors, and the resulting stress reactions. Lecavalier, et al. 2006 finds that individual differences in parenting stress are fairly stable over time; however, the parent-child relationship also changes systematically as a function of different developmental periods. According to Duncan, et al. 2009, parents’ own skills and capacities for regulating their thoughts and emotions are critical to their parenting stress level and coping strategies when faced with stressors in the caregiving role. This collection of works also shows that beyond the individual caregiver, parenting stress is influenced by a host of contextual factors that include social support, socioeconomic factors, and cultural factors.

  • Abidin, R. R. 1992. Presidential address: The determinants of parenting behavior. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 21:407–412.

    DOI: 10.1207/s15374424jccp2104_12E-mail Citation »

    This seminal article presents a “parent-child relationship” model of parenting stress in integrating past studies to highlight three domains (parent, child, and relationship factors) that have been found to influence parenting distress and caregiving behaviors.

  • Abidin, R. R. 1995. Parenting stress index. 3d ed. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

    E-mail Citation »

    This 120-item instrument contains thirteen subscales designed to assess stress within families with children aged 1–12 years. It is the most widely used instrument in the literature. A child domain score and parent domain score are combined yielding a total stress composite aimed at capturing areas of personal parental distress as well as stress in parent-child interactions and the role of child behavioral characteristics.

  • Crnic, K., and M. Greenberg. 1990. Minor parenting stresses with young children. Child Development 61.5: 1628–1637.

    DOI: 10.2307/1130770E-mail Citation »

    The paper presents an empirical study that emphasizes the importance of minor parenting stressors (i.e., daily hassles) in determining parents’ functioning and illustrates the necessity of incorporating the cumulative effects of daily hassles as a source of parenting stress.

  • Deater-Deckard, K. 2004. Parenting stress. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book provides a comprehensive introduction to, and overview of, the parenting stress literature. It incorporates theories and empirical studies to illustrate the origins of individual differences in parenting stress and impact on child adjustment as well intervention programs that are proven to be beneficial in helping parents’ better deal with stress in their caregiving role.

  • Duncan, L. G., J. D. Coatsworth, and M. T. Greenberg. 2009. A model of mindful parenting: Implications for parent-child relationships and prevention research. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review 12.3: 255–270.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10567-009-0046-3E-mail Citation »

    The paper introduces the framework of mindful parenting, which requires parents to engage their attention in parent-child interactions, cultivate self-regulation, and be nonjudgmental and compassionate in the parent-child relationship. Mindful parenting practices and intervention programs may help improve parent-child relationship quality by reducing parenting stress.

  • Lazarus, R. S. 1999. Stress and emotion: A new synthesis. New York: Springer.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book presents the basic components of the appraisal process of the stress reaction. The basic process described in this book can be applied to specific questions regarding the causes and consequences of distress in caregivers and its impact on health and functioning for parent and child alike.

  • Lecavalier, L., S. Leone, and J. Wiltz. 2006. The impact of behavior problems on caregiver stress in young people with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research 50.3: 172–183.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2788.2005.00732.xE-mail Citation »

    This paper describes a characteristic longitudinal analysis of the stability of caregiver stress over time and also addresses the association between caregiver stress and children’s behavior problems or adaptive functioning. Findings show that parenting stress is quite stable over time, and it is associated with children’s behavior problems as well.

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