A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy is broaching how a down economy can impact family life. New York University sociologist Dohoon Lee contends that an uptick in strict maternal behavior stems more from anticipation of hard times rather than actual exposure. In fact, mothers treated their children harsher for each 10% increase in the unemployment rate in the city where they resided.
Lee examined data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which tracked more than 4,800 children born in 20 U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000 as well as unemployment rates and consumer sentiment index to measure the health of the economy. The mothers, mostly single parents, were interviewed periodically throughout the child’s life over a span of nine years. Harsh behavior was determined by a scale of 10 psychological and physical measures, including spanking, swearing and yelling, and participants were asked to identify how often they engaged in this type of behavior ranging from “never” to “more than 20 times.”
DNA samples were also take from the mothers and children during the ninth year, adding a genetic nuance to the study. As Pacific Standard explains, women with a sensitive gene variation of the DRD2 Taq1A genotype, which is connected to the release of dopamine, were most inclined to engage in maternal misbehavior during the recession.
The study also looked at the effects of changes to individual family income but found no statistical significance resulting in an increase in harsh behavior. Moreover, the study underpins how fear of future adversity can lead to more negative behavior, according to Princeton University sociology professor Sara McLanahan, who co-authored the study. “People can adjust to difficult circumstances once they know what to expect, whereas fear or uncertainty about the future is more difficult to deal with.”