MATERNAL PSYCHOSOCIAL RISK AND PARENTING CLASSES AS
MEDIATORS OF THE EFFECTS OF STRESSFUL EXPERIENCES ON
Lindsey Alison Schachter
B.A.j George Washington University, 2001
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Masters of Arts
This thesis for the Masters of Arts
Lindsey Alison Schachter
has been approved
Schachter, Lindsey Alison (M.A., Psychology)
Maternal Psychosocial Risk and Parenting Classes as Mediators of the Effects of
Stressful Experiences on Parenting Practices
Thesis directed by Senior Instructor Kevin Everhart
Family instability and adverse life events (FIA) have been repeatedly linked
to variations in parenting practices, influencing parent-child interactions and child
outcomes. The current project tested the interrelationships between family
instability and adverse life events, maternal psychosocial risk, parenting classes, and
parenting practices. Structural Equation Modeling was conducted with a
multiethnic sample of 2,941 mothers who participated in the longitudinal Early
Head Start Research and Evaluation Project. The analyses revealed a moderate
overall fit of the conceptual model with significant direct and indirect paths between
constructs. Significant direct paths were shown between FIA and negative
parenting practices, maternal psychosocial risk, and parenting classes. Additional
direct effects were evident between substance use (one of the maternal psychosocial
risk variables) and parenting classes and between substance use and parenting
practices. Substance use mediated the relationships between FIA and parenting
practices and between FIA and parenting classes and was thus the only mediating
variable in the model. Improvements in model fit were not found when the original
model was modified. An exploratory analysis determined that the childs gender
did not affect these relationships. These findings suggest that FIA have detrimental
effects on many aspects of parental functioning.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Family Instability and Adverse Life Events......................4
Indirect Effects........................................ 6
Stressful Life Events...................................15
Maternal Psychosocial Risk.....................................19
The Current Study..............................................31
The Conceptual Model...........................................33
3. RESULTS ...........................................................47
Confirmatory Factor Analysis...................................51
Structural Equation Modeling...................................52
Exploratory Analysis of Gender Effects..................55
Exploratory Analysis Toward Further Model Development...56
1.1 The conceptual model..............................................34
3.1 The conceptual model after preliminary analyses...................53
3.2 The modified conceptual model.....................................58
3.1 Means and standard deviations for all measured variables................48
3.2 Correlations between family instability and adverse life events variables,
psychosocial risk variables, parenting classes, and parenting practices..49
Parenting is a complex and multifactoral process which significantly
influences childrens social, emotional, and cognitive development. Studies have
illustrated wide variability in how parents interact with their children, in turn
affecting parent-child relationships and child outcomes. Widespread empirical
support shows that differences in developmental outcomes are at least partly
accounted for by individual variations in parenting quality (Baumrind, 1970;
Clarke-Stewart, 1973; Isabella & Belsky, 1991). A number of other factors
influence parenting practices and child outcomes including circumstances within
the familys environment, and characteristics and functioning of the parents.
Parental warmth, acceptance, and sensitivity to childrens basic needs
usually result in positive child outcomes while harsh, negative, and coercive
parenting is regarded as being detrimental to children (Baumrind, 1967; 1970; 1972;
1989; Sears, Maccoby, & Levin, 1957). In 1957, Sears, Maccoby, and Levin
conducted a study that explored relations between parental reports of punitiveness
and permissiveness in response to childrens aggression. The researchers speculated
that high levels of parental permissiveness sent a message to the children that
aggressive behavior was acceptable and, conversely, that high levels of parental
punitiveness promoted child frustration and in turn aggressive behavior. Low
permissive and low punitive mothers responses sent a clear message to children
that aggression was unacceptable, though in a non-threatening and non-frustrating
manner (Sears, Maccoby, & Levin, 1957).
Many other studies have also demonstrated how parents responses impact
childrens behaviors. Baumrind (1967, 1970, 1972, 1989) built on and extended
Sears, Maccoby, and Levins (1957) study by denoting an authoritarian parenting
style, an authoritative parenting style, and a permissive parenting style and
examined how these different parenting dimensions affected childrens behavior.
Authoritarian parents use high levels of control, low levels of nurturance, and tend
to be punitive with their children. Parents who use an authoritative style are
nurturing yet firm, openly acknowledge and incorporate the childs perspective
regarding discipline, and set clear standards of conduct for their children.
Permissive parents are openly accepting and supportive of the childs behavior but
allow the child a lot of freedom, exerting little control and setting minimal standards
of conduct for the child (Teti & Candelaria, 2002). Baumrind discovered the
highest levels of social and academic competence in children who experienced
authoritative parenting. These children were found to be more independent and
assertive, more friendly with peers, more cooperative with parents, and more
achievement oriented. Children raised in authoritarian homes were generally more
hostile and/or shy with peers, overly dependent on parents, and less concerned with
achievement. Interestingly despite the difference in parenting styles among those
who were authoritarian and permissive, children in permissive homes exhibited
several of the same characteristics as children in authoritarian homes. Baumrinds
studies indicate that discipline involving appropriate levels of control, openness, and
nurturance are associated with self-confident and autonomous outcomes, while
punitive, harsh, and permissive disciplinary practices are associated with children
being withdrawn, discontent, and controlling (Baumrind, 1967; 1970; 1972; 1989).
Because parenting behaviors affect childrens adjustment so profoundly,
there has been growing interest in identifying influences on parenting behaviors.
Theoretically, it is understood that several variables operating at different levels of
the individual, family, and socio-cultural systems influence parenting behavior.
This developmental contextual view of parenting asserts that both the parent and the
child are embedded in a broader social network within which each has reciprocal
interactions (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Therefore, focusing on one variable is much
too simplistic and limiting for understanding human behavior.
Additional research has shown that parenting has multiple determinants. In
1984, Belsky created a model to investigate the effects of multiple psychosocial
variables on parenting. His model outlined how personal psychological resources of
the parent, characteristics of the child, and the contextual sources of stress and
support can shape parenting behavior. He theorized that both stress and support
could directly or indirectly affect parenting behavior by influencing the
psychological resources of the parent. Belsky predicted that a childs chances of
experiencing a low quality home environment are greatest if all three factors
combine to undermine effective parenting (Belsky, 1984). Researchers who have
replicated Belskys work have provided support for his model (Crockenberg &
McClusky, 1986; Hannan & Luster, 1991; Meyers, 1999), again illustrating why
any model that explains parenting must incorporate multiple determinants.
This body of research shows that differences in parents exchanges with
their children are likely dependent upon the interaction of multiple factors. The
current study seeks to examine some factors that have been repeatedly linked to
variations in parenting practices in empirical and theoretical literature. The
interrelationships among family instability and adverse life events, maternal
psychosocial risk, parenting classes, and parenting practices are examined in low-
income mothers enrolled in Early Head Start (EHS). Prior to presenting the
conceptual model and the hypotheses designed for the current study a thorough
review of the pertinent literature will be provided.
Family Instability and Adverse Life Events
A wealth of literature has shown that family instability and adverse life
events are associated with stress. While researchers have emphasized different
stress triggers in their studies, most would agree that stress is a state in which
persons are unable to cope with demands that are placed upon them. These
demands, often negative or undesirable in nature, challenge the individuals coping
ability and disrupt or threaten to disrupt the individuals usual activities (Jewitt,
A review of existing literature shows that extrafamilial factors, such as
poverty, economic strain, work interruption, and unemployment, and intrafamilial
factors, such as negative life events, marital conflict, isolation, anxiety and
depression, family instability, alcohol and drug abuse, daily hassles, and single
parenthood all can create stress for parents (Armistead, Klein, & Forehand, 1995;
Conger, Conger, Elder, Lorenz, Simons, & Whitbeck, 1992; Conger, Ge, Elder,
Lorenz, & Simons, 1994; McLoyd & Wilson, 1990; Webster-Stratton, 1990). The
1 death, illness, or injury of a family member or close friend and residential moves
has been linked to high levels of stress for mothers (Conger, Patterson, & Ge, 1995;
Roberts, 1989). Conducting a study examining all of the above factors is
impractical. Determining which variables to use when assessing stress can be
difficult, however, researchers recommend focusing on a combination of these
stressors, all of which have been previously validated in the literature.
Research has evinced parental stressors and the harmful effects of these
stressors on parenting behavior. This relationship has been shown to occur directly,
suggesting that when parents are exposed to stressful situations they are more likely
to use undesirable parenting techniques (McLoyd, 1990; Rodgers, 1993). Stress
research consistently uncovers that the number of stressors parents are exposed to is
negatively correlated with positive parent-child interactions (Rodgers, 1993). In
1999, Meyers explored how characteristics of parents, children, and the family
context affect mothers parenting. He found that mothers who experienced many
stressors were more likely to demonstrate insensitivity during parent-child
interactions than those reporting fewer stressors. Other studies have revealed that
unemployment and marital discord are considered risk factors for abusive parenting
(Belsky, 1984; Belsky & Vondra, 1989; Wolfe, 1987) and that single parenthood
and large family size are risk factors for child maltreatment (Belsky, 1993).
McLoyd (1990) investigated economic hardship as a risk factor and found that low-
income parents, as compared with middle-class parents, were more likely to use a
punitive parenting style and physical punishment and were less likely to support
their children, to reward them for positive behavior, or to be responsive to their
Despite the strong link between parenting stress and ineffectual parenting,
not all parents with high levels of stress exhibit poor parenting behaviors,
suggesting that some additional factors influence the pathway from stress to
parenting (Rodriguez & Green, 1997). One such factor given widespread attention
is parental symptomatology, guided by literature that has shown it is common for
individuals experiencing stress to respond with varying levels of depression,
distress, and substance use, all of which impact parenting (Brown & Harris, 1978;
Conger, Lorenz, Elder, Simons, & Ge, 1993; Conger et al., 1994; Conger et al.,
1995; Kettinger, Nair, & Schuler, 2000; McLoyd, 1990; Simons, Bearman, Conger,
& Chao, 1993).
Research offers compelling evidence for this indirect effect, also considered
a mediational pathway, between stressful situations and parenting practices through
parental functioning (Belsky, 1984). Many studies have demonstrated that people
who were exposed to a greater number of undesirable life events experienced more
emotional problems (Conger, Lorenz et al., 1993; Conger et al., 1994; Conger et al.,
1995; McLoyd, 1990). These emotional problems led to harsh, hostile, and
inconsistent parenting behavior (Berkowitz, 1989; Downey & Coyne, 1990). Other
research studies showed that when families experienced higher levels of stress such
as poverty and financial instability there were related increases in parental
depression, which in turn was presumed to have led to more coercive and
inconsistent parenting strategies (Conger, Conger, & Simons, 1992; Conger, Lorenz,
Elder, Melby, Simons, & Conger, 1991).
While the previously mentioned studies have concluded that there are only
direct or only indirect pathways of stressful situations on parenting practices, others
have emphasized both direct and indirect effects. One such example is Rodgers
(1993) study which examined the interrelationships among parenting stress, social
support, parental symptomatology, and parenting behavior. She found that parent
stress levels both directly and indirectly impacted the parenting behavior of 85
mothers with children enrolled in Head Start. The current study investigates
financial stress variables, family structure variables, and stressful life events as part
of the family instability and adverse life events construct. Studies investigating the
impact of these stressors on parenting practices have revealed both direct and
Economic hardship has received significant attention as a source of stress in
parents and, in turn, family instability. Low income parents face the same child-
rearing responsibilities as middle-class parents, though they must meet these
responsibilities with less money, less education, and less access to resources.
Compared to middle-class families, lower-class families experience two to four
times more major stressors (Roghmann, Hecht, & Haggerty, 1975). These stressors
stem from financial hardship, leading not only to feelings of helplessness,
hopelessness, and powerlessness, but also to high levels of family instability. The
literature on financial stress has shown both direct and indirect effects on parenting
behavior (Demo, 2000; Elder, Liker, & Cross, 1984; Elder, Van Nguyen, & Caspi,
1985; McLoyd, 1989; Webster-Stratton, 1990). Because the majority of studies in
this area focus on indirect effects, only a brief review of the direct effects will be
According to the Family Stress Model (Conger et ah, 1994), demographic
conditions associated with economic stress, such as low income and single
parenthood, will diminish supportive parenting and intensify hostile parenting.
Persistent poverty and financial hardship have led to rejecting, erratic, and
sometimes harsh parenting behaviors (McLoyd, 1989). Additionally, studies
demonstrated that low income mothers were less likely to provide consistent
involvement, support, warmth, nurturance, empathy, and discipline (Demo, 2000)
and were more likely to use negative controlling behaviors and physical punishment
with their children (Conger et ah, 1984; Gecas, 1979; Hess, 1970; Webster-Stratton,
1990). Such interaction patterns have been related to family instability and negative
child outcomes. In 1989, Lempers, Clark-Lempers, and Simons examined the
effects of stressful economic times on children. Family economic hardship was
associated with decreased parental nurturance and increased inconsistent discipline,
resulting in distressed adolescent boys and girls. Hashima and Amatos (1994)
study discovered that low income parents reported more frequent unsupportive
behavior and physical harm to their children.
The literature is replete with studies investigating the indirect effect of
financial stress on parenting practices through parental psychological functioning,
primarily guided by the work of Glen Elder and his colleagues (Elder et ah, 1984;
Elder et al., 1985; Elder, Eccles, Ardent, & Lord, 1995). While all individuals are
likely to experience negative life events during their lives, those who are poor are
more likely to suffer mental health problems following these events (Mcloyd, 1990).
For example, a stressor such as job loss among low-income individuals has been
linked to depression (Oliver & Pomicter, 1981; Warr, 1984), lowered self-esteem
(Baum, Fleming, & Reddy, 1986) and irritability (McLoyd, 1989).
Elder and his colleagues investigated paternal psychological functioning as a
mediating variable between income loss and parenting behavior among depression
era families. Their studies demonstrated that heavy income loss increased the
irritability and moodiness of fathers, which was linked to more punitive, arbitrary,
and rejecting parenting, and in turn, difficult and ill-tempered behavior among
children (Elder et al., 1984; Elder et al., 1985). More recently, Elder collaborated
with Conger and his colleagues, and conducted a study that replicated these findings
in two-parent middle-class Caucasian families (Conger, Conger, Elder, Lorenz,
Simon, & Whitbeck, 1992). First, they proposed a model linking economic stress to
problematic adjustment in adolescent boys and found that economic stress indirectly
influenced adolescents through disruptions in parental mood and behavior.
Specifically, economic pressure led to parental depression and demoralization that
resulted in greater family instability and disruptions in parenting. A year later they
conducted a comparable study looking at the adjustment of adolescent girls and
found similar results; the only exception being that parental depression was a
stronger predictor for parenting boys than girls (Conger, Conger, Elder, Lorenz,
Simons, & Whitbeck, 1992; Conger, Conger, Elder, Lorenz, Simons, & Whitbeck,
1993). This conclusion demonstrates that while stress affects parenting behaviors,
the outcome effects on children may differ depending on the childs gender. A final
study by McLoyd (1990) showed that economic hardship produced states of anxiety,
depression, and irritability among parents. This psychological strain increased
punitive, erratic, and generally unsupportive behaviors of parents.
Although the previously mentioned studies have provided evidence
exclusively for indirect effects, some mediational model studies have failed to
reveal these effects, and some have shown both direct and indirect effects. In 1984,
Conger, McCarty, Yang, Lahey, and Kropp investigated emotional stress,
authoritarian child-rearing values, and parents perceptions of children as mediators
in the relationship between stressful life circumstances and maternal behavior.
Stressful financial, family structural, and historical circumstances experienced by
mothers had an independent influence on maternal behavior that was not accounted
for by the psychological characteristics studied. Some support was shown for
emotional distress as a partial mediator of the relationship between environmental
stressors and maternal behavior. In 1995, Elder and colleagues conducted a study
with an African American and Caucasian sample. Family hardship and strong
economic pressures diminished a sense of parental efficacy directly and indirectly
through their impact on depressed feelings. Among African American families both
direct and indirect effects were found, compared to Caucasian families where only
indirect effects were observed (Elder et al., 1995).
The extensive research on financial stressors exemplifies the impact this type
of stress has on parental psychological functioning and on parenting practices.
Other types of stressors, while less understood, have also been shown to have both
direct and indirect effects on parenting practices. One such source of stress is
raising children as a single parent. Studies have shown an increase in family
instability and parent-child relationship problems among single parent family
structures (Demo, 1992; Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1982; Simons, 1996; Simons et
al., 1993). These relationship difficulties are intensified when the single parents
have less social and financial support or live alone. These situations are not
uncommon considering one-half of all single mothers live below the poverty line
(McLanahan & Booth, 1989) and are more likely to have a low earning capacity,
erratic work patterns, and unstable living conditions (Sandler, 1980).
When compared to children in two-parent families, children in single-parent
families experience more negative and less positive parenting and are exposed to
more dominating, hostile, and punitive disciplinary styles (Hetherington &
Clingempeel, 1992; McLoyd, 1990). Previous research also suggests that single
parents show less warmth, affection, sensitivity, and acceptance towards their
children than married parents (Demo, 1992; Hetherington et al., 1982; Nath,
Borkowski, Whitman, & Schellenbach, 1991; Simons, 1996). Thomson, Hanson, &
McLanahan (1994) looked at the relationship between family structure and parental
behaviors and found that children in single-mother families received less support,
less nurturance, and less parental control than children in two-parent families.
Evidence for the negative effect of single parenting on children is mixed.
Although the previously mentioned studies have shown evidence for this impact,
some studies have not found this relationship. For example, Jenkins, Rasbash, and
OConnor (2001) examined the effect of family context and child characteristics on
differential parental positivity and negativity amongst siblings. In their study single
parents were no more negative than parents in intact families. The following year
Cui, Conger, Bryant, and Elder (2002) showed that single parents were more
supportive and more hostile towards their adolescent children. These results are
partially inconsistent with earlier studies where single parents were less supportive
and more hostile to their children. The authors concluded that the single parents in
their study demonstrated a broader range of emotions in general toward their
children. In 1993, Bronstein and Clauson assessed positive family relationships and
found no differences between households headed by single mothers and those
headed by two adults. Almost all of the differences in family relationships between
single-mother and traditional households were accounted for by SES, suggesting
that socioeconomic factors may have a stronger impact on the quality of parenting
in single-mother households than nuclear households (Bronstein & Clauson, 1993).
When single mothers were compared to stable-intact and distressed-intact mothers
there were no differences in terms of positive parenting behaviors. Differences
were evident with negative parenting behaviors, where single parents were more
critical, more restrictive, and more authoritarian (Webster-Stratton, 1989).
Single parenting also impacts psychological functioning. Single mothers
when compared to other marital status groups are at greater risk of anxiety,
depression, and health problems, leading to undesirable parenting practices
(Guttentag, Salasin, & Belle, 1980). Simons, Bearman, Conger, and Chao (1993)
looked at the relationship between single mothers, psychological problems, and
ineffectual parenting among 209 divorced single women. It was concluded that
single mothers located in low social strata were more likely to experience negative
events and little social support. This increase in exposure to stressful events led to
psychological distress, which in turn, led to inept and ineffectual discipline.
Along with single parenting, relationship disturbance whether divorced,
separated, or widowed ranks high among the major stressors affecting parenting
attitudes and family interactions. Divorced and separated parents have been shown
to interact with their children with less affection and involvement and with greater
punitiveness and irritability (Hetherington et al., 1982; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980).
Relationship stress in mothers also predicted frequency of spanking as a form of
discipline (Coyl, Roggman, & Newland, 2002). Marital relations also influence
parenting indirectly by impacting the psychological well-being of the parent.
Factors such as divorce and poor marital relationship quality have been linked with
unstable family environments and maternal depression and drug abuse (Brown &
Harris, 1978; Carveth & Gottlieb, 1979; Coyl et al., 2002). Most women
experiencing family dissolution report increased distress, depression, loneliness,
regret, lack of control, helplessness, and anger (Clarke-Stewart, 2000). Clarke-
Stewart (2000) found that after marital disruption separated mothers had lower
incomes, experienced higher levels of depression, and provided their children with
less support and stimulation than married mothers.
Stressful Life Events
In addition to financial and family structure stress, stressful life events may
have a detrimental impact on parental behavior. Recent research has indicated
significant correlations between parents who reported high stress on the Life
Experience Survey and more controlling, abusive, and harsher discipline (Webster-
Stratton, 1988). Parents who experienced a greater number of stressful life events
were also less nurturing, less warm, and less responsive toward their children
(Belsky, 1984; Weinraub & Wolf, 1983). When these parents had the added
stressor of being single mothers they were less at ease, less spontaneous, and less
responsive to their childrens communications. Similarly, the occurrence of
undesirable life events were found by Gersten, Langner, Eisenberg, and Simcha-
Fagan (1977) to correlate positively with affectively distant, restrictive, and punitive
parenting and with harsh and non-supportive parenting styles (McLoyd, 1990).
Furthermore, mothers who were highly stressed were more irritable and hostile
towards their children (Downey & Coyne, 1990), were more likely to be neglectful
and abusive (Abidin & Bruner, 1995; Mash, Johnston, & Kovitz, 1983), reported
more negative feelings and showed more insensitivity to their infants (Cmic,
Greenberg, Ragozin, Robinson, & Basham, 1983). In contrast, mothers with lower
levels of stress had more positive parent-infant interactions (McKelvey, Fitzgerald,
Schiffman, & Von Eye, 2002).
Studies that have focused on more specific stressful life events have shown
that residential instability such as frequent household moves create additional strains
and stresses on parents, in turn, disrupting the parent-child relationship and
increasing anger, arguing, and conflict among adults in the house (Capaldi &
Patterson, 1991; Cohen, Johnson, Struening, & Brooks, 1989; Sampson & Laub,
1994). While most of the literature has documented the adverse influence of
stressful life events on parenting, Robert (1989) discovered that overall stress was
not strongly linked with parenting. He investigated loss, separation, discord,
troubled relationships, disappointments, enduring changes, fearful events, physically
noxious or painful events, and emotional distress. The death of a friend or relative
was the only stressful event linked to parenting, which was associated with less
warmth and less responsive parenting (Robert, 1989).
Not surprisingly, adverse life events have been involved in the precipitation
of episodes of depression (Brown & Harris, 1978), negatively affecting
psychological well-being (Holmes & Rahe, 1967; Dohrenwend & Dohrenwend,
1974). Patients admitted to treatment for depression, attempted suicide, and
schizophrenia all reported higher rates of undesirable events when compared to a
control group (Paykel, 1974). Mirowsky and Ross (1983) found that the more
undesirable events participants were exposed to, the more distress they experienced.
This onset of depressive episodes commonly following adverse life events
often disrupts parenting (Hammen et al., 1987). In their study of seventy five intact
high-risk families, Conger and his colleagues (1995) proved that parental stress,
measured as negative life events during the past year were linked to parental
depression, which later related to poor parental discipline. The direct path tested
between stress and discipline was not statistically significant, leaving the
researchers to conclude that parental stress served to disrupt parenting through its
negative impact on parental functioning, rather than through a direct effect on
parenting behavior itself (Conger, Patterson, & Ge, 1995). In 1992, Conger,
Conger, Elder, Lorenz, Simons, and Whitbeck investigated a mediational model and
found that parental stress correlated with parent depression, and this, in turn
covaried with disrupted discipline. The researchers learned that parental discipline
was disrupted only if stressful experiences were accompanied by depression and not
all parents became depressed when subjected to stress. Again, direct correlations
between stress and parenting were not found. It should be noted that two-parent
intact families were used in this study and the results may have differed with a
sample of single-parent families. In Kettinger, Nair, and Schulers (2000) study
multiple negative environmental factors were associated with maternal substance
abuse. The combination of stress exposure and substance abuse resulted in poor
Financial stress, family structure, and stressful life events are associated with
maternal discipline directly and indirectly thought their impact on psychological
functioning. It is, however, important to note the valid point that was made by
Brown and Harris based on the conclusions of their (1978) study. While the vast
majority of depressed episodes in their study were preceded, and presumably
provoked, by stressful life events, the majority of individuals who experience
stressful life events do not become clinically depressed. They may be distressed for
a period of time but rapidly recover and cope with the circumstances (Brown &
Harris, 1978). Whether stressors seriously disrupt parents functioning and
interactions with their children depends on many factors, including the parents
psychological characteristics, their personal resources, their level of intelligence,
and their temperament (Webster-Stratton, 1990).
Considering the vast amount of literature documenting the relationships
between stress, parental functioning, and parenting practices, it is clear that various
stressful environmental conditions affect the parent-child relationship directly and
indirectly through the parents general level of psychological well-being. Therefore,
one of the possible mediating links between environmental stress and maternal
behavior investigated in the current study is maternal psychosocial risk. The childs
gender will be explored for any affects on the impact of environmental stress and
psychological well-being on maternal behavior. A second hypothesized mediating
variable included in the current study is parental education.
Maternal Psychosocial Risk
Psychosocial problems usually refer to problems that are psychological and
social in nature. While many risks can fit into these two categories, there are three
criteria groups that tend to predominate in the scientific literature including
psychiatric problems, substance abuse, and disadvantageous social circumstances
Research studies published by Reichman and Teitler (2003), Kazak and
colleagues, (2003) and Sydsjo, Wadsby, and Goran Svedin (2001) have used factors
incorporated within these criteria groups to successfully assess psychosocial risk.
Reichman and Teitler (2003) evaluated the independent effects of psychosocial risk
factors and prenatal interventions on birth-weight outcomes. The psychosocial risk
factors used in their study included parental smoking, drinking, and drug use and a
diagnosis of clinical depression or other mental health problem. That same year
researchers completed a study with families of children newly diagnosed with
cancer that focused on distress as a psychosocial risk factor affecting these families
(Kazak et al., 2003).
Sydsjo and colleagues (2001) studied mother-child interactions in a group of
women with psychosocial risks. The psychosocial risks they examined were alcohol
and drug abuse, psychiatric problems, and disadvantageous social circumstances.
The results of this study, similar to that of other studies (Arellano, 1996; Cohn,
Matias, Tronick, Lyons-Ruth, & Connell, 1986; Colletta, 1983; McLoyd, 1990),
showed that psychosocial risks adversely affected parenting practices. Mothers with
these psychosocial risks displayed poorer interaction styles with their children than
mothers without such risks, which was linked to behavioral problems in children
eight years later. A review of the above literature shows that there are certain
psychological and social risks most often documented when assessing psychosocial
risk. Exposure to these risks leaves parents more vulnerable when interacting with
their children. The current study examines maternal depression, distress, and
As previously mentioned family instability and adverse life events can have
severe undesirable and harmful consequences for families and children, including an
increase in psychosocial risks and in poor and ineffective parenting. Many studies
indicate that individuals who experience multiple stressors are more depressed,
anxious, distressed, and hostile and are often dissatisfied with their lives. They
consume more alcohol, have more somatic complaints, and eating and sleeping
problems (Buss & Redbum, 1983; Holahan, Betak, Spearly, & Chance, 1983; Ge,
Conger, Lorenz, & Simons, 1994). Therefore, it seems important to further
investigate the impact of psychosocial risk and psychological functioning on
While extensive literature exists documenting the relationship between
psychosocial risks and parenting, depression has received the most attention.
Depressed mothers create disruptive, hostile, and rejecting home environments for
their children (Colletta, 1983; Seagull, 1987) and are detached, unresponsive, and
intrusive (Cohn et ah, 1986). Maternal depression has also been associated with the
following: decreases in maternal nurturance, sensitive-responsiveness, and warmth;
less positive affect; lower levels of stimulation; less physical interaction; and often
an increase in withdrawal and negative affect (Cox, Puckering, Pound, & Mills,
1987; Downey & Coyne, 1990; Field, 1992; Gelfand & Teti, 1990; Goodman &
Brumley, 1990; Teti & Gelfand, 1991). In McLoyd, Jayaratne, Ceballo, and
Borquezs (1994) study, maternal depression predicted frequent use of punishment
and negative perceptions of the maternal role. Depressed mothers exhibited flat
affect, provided less stimulation, and were more negative and unsupportive. They
were also more likely to yell or threaten their children (Field, 1984; Lovejoy, 1991).
In a study of depressed and nondepressed mothers of 2 year olds, the depressed
mothers exhibited greater criticism, more disengagement, lack of responsivity to the
childs cues, and less warmth (Cox et al., 1987).
Field, Healy, Goldstein, and Guthertz (1990) assessed the effect of
depression on mother-child interactions and found that 17% of the depressed
mothers were labeled intrusive, compared to 2% of the nondepressed mothers; 29%
were labeled disengaged, compared to 2% of the nondepressed mothers; 25%
eliciting, compared to 33%; and 8% positive, compared to 43% positive. The
depressed mothers spent a greater amount of time in negative states, which was
shown to have a detrimental impact on children. These children seemed to have
developed a depressed style of interacting, exhibited negative affective expressions
such as crying, grimacing, or fussing, and were disengaged (Field, Healy, Goldstein,
& Guthertz, 1990). Beck (1995) was extremely interested in the impact of maternal
depression on mother-infant interactions and conducted a meta-analysis of 19
studies that addressed this topic. He discovered consistent support for a substantial
difference between the interactions of depressed and nondepressed parents.
Mothers who were depressed were more negative and intrusive, whereas those who
were not depressed exhibited more positive behaviors (Field, 1998; Hossain, Field,
Gonzalez, & Malphurs, 1994). Mothers with depression were also less responsive
to the needs of their infants (Jameson, Gelfand, Kulcsar, & Teti, 1997).
Despite the many studies that have illustrated the undesirable impact of
maternal depression on parenting and parent-child interactions, some studies have
shown otherwise. For example, in studies done by Brody and Flor (1997) and
Taylor, Roberts, and Jacobson (1997) maternal depression did not predict parenting
behaviors or mother-child relationship quality. A third study by Rogers and
Forehand (1983) failed to reveal any correlations between maternal depression and
maternal behavior toward children. No links were apparent between maternal
depression and harsh physical punishment, negative discipline, or amounts of
scolding in Bluestone and Tamis-LeMondas (1999) study. However, depression
did appear to compromise mothers abilities to engage in reasoning and child
centered parenting. Webster-Stratton and Hammond (1988) found no differences
between parent-child interactions of mothers with higher levels of depressive
symptomology and mothers with lower levels of symptomology. The results of
these studies (Bluestone & Tamis-LeMonda, 1999; Brody & Flor, 1997; Rogers &
Forehand, 1983; Taylor, Roberts, & Jacobson, 1997; Webster-Stratton & Hammond,
1988) may differ from studies that revealed a negative impact of depression on
parenting due to methodological considerations such as different developmental
stages of the children assessed, different methods of measuring parenting practices,
and different characteristics of the populations being examined (Bluestone & Tamis-
LeMonda, 1999). Despite these methodological considerations, it is still evident
that depressed parents are capable of functioning in healthy ways. Therefore, it is
an overgeneralization to indicate that all women who feel depressed function poorly
as parents, or that impaired parenting is caused by parental depression (Frankel &
Along with depression, maternal distress has been known to influence
parenting practices. The parenting difficulties evident in depressed mothers are very
similar to mothers who are distressed (Patterson, 1982; Wahler & Dumas, 1989),
leading researchers to suspect that the stressors causing women to become
depressed are comparable to those causing distress. When discussing maternal
distress, the current study refers to a subjective measure of the level of stress
experienced by mothers in the parenting role. Therefore, the literature reviewed in
this section also assessed parental distress as stress from the parenting role.
Psychological distress has resulted from demands of parenthood and has contributed
to the development of dysfunctional parent-child relationships (Abidin, 1995;
Deater-Deckard, 1988). Specifically, stress due to the parenting role has been
associated with abusive parenting (Chan, 1994; Milner, 1986). In Lams (1999)
study, parenting stress was positively correlated with anger expression toward
children, which negatively affected the parent-child relationship. Ethier, Lacharite,
and Couture (1995) revealed that mothers who experienced more stress related to
their parental role were more neglectful of their children. These mothers were
characterized by withdrawal, unavailability, apathy, and omission. Byron (2003)
conducted a study assessing the effects of stress on parenting of children with
developmental delays. She found that parent who reported high levels of parenting
stress interacted less frequently and less effectively with their children and these
children exhibited increased behavioral problems.
Although the majority of studies have resulted in a detrimental impact of
distress on parenting, the following study found results inconsistent with the above
conclusions. Parental stress was positively related to satisfaction with parenthood in
Rodds (1994) study. The majority of mothers in her sample scored high on stress
and at the same time reported that they were satisfied with their role as a parent and
their financial security. Additionally, parent stress did not appear to impact positive
parenting, encouragement, and empathetic and understanding behaviors toward
children. However, these results were unexpected and the researcher speculated that
mothers with high parental stress may be denying and/or distorting their fulfillment
in these areas of their life (Rodd, 1994).
Maternal substance abuse is one of many risk factors that place mothers in
danger of poor parenting. Substance misuse has been shown to be the most
concerning parental mental health problem (Reder, Duncan, & Lucey, 2003). Even
maternal social drinking has been related to poorer parenting (OConnor, Sigman, &
Kasari, 1993). While under the influence, it is not uncommon for parents to act in
an impaired and maladaptive manner. Women who abuse substances are often less
responsive and more punitive and neglectful towards their children when compared
to nondrug users (Arellano, 1996; Nair et al., 1997). Substance abuse has also been
correlated to poor parental monitoring and harsh discipline (Dishion, Reid, &
Patterson, 1988; Patterson, 1986). Out of the 190 cases of child maltreatment
reviewed in Famularo, Kinscherff, and Fentons (1992) study, 126 involved parents
who abused substances, showing that children raised by a parent who abuses
substances have an increased risk of being maltreated. These parents also tend to
reside in chaotic and unstructured households and provide inconsistent and poor
supervision (Feig, 1998).
When drug use occurs independently, many mothers behave in the manner
presented above, while others are able to maintain a positive parental role. For
example, in 1995, Hofkosh and colleagues found that some women who abused
substances provided a supportive and stimulating home environment for their
children (Hofkosh et al., 1995). Additionally, the Center for Family Research at the
George Washington University Medical Center revealed increased interpersonal
warmth, caretaking, and animation in families when the substance abusing parent
was drinking. These increased positive behaviors encouraged drinking among the
substance abusing parent because it seemed to make things better within the family
(Steinglass, Davis, & Berenson, 1977).
While the independent occurrence of drug use has unveiled detrimental and
non-detrimental parenting behaviors, when drug use is combined with other risk
factors it is even more likely to interfere with the mothers ability to care for her
children, damaging the parent-child relationship. Nair and colleagues (1997)
suggested that women who were least able to provide ongoing care for their children
were those who abused substances and were exposed to multiple demographic and
psychosocial risks. Thus, it was not maternal substance abuse alone that predicted
mothering ability, but substance abuse combined with other risks. This finding was
replicated in 2000 when exposure to negative environmental risks and parenting
attitudes were examined among a group of inner city substance abusing women.
Not all substance abusing women in this sample were at risk for poor parenting
attitudes. However, the women who were exposed to a higher number of
environmental risks in addition to the substance abusing had poorer parenting
attitudes than those exposed to a low number of risks (Kettinger et al., 2000). This
view is fairly consistent across the literature in regards to psychosocial risk factors.
Maternal depression, distress and substance abuse have not only been associated
with problematic parenting, but also with multiple negative environmental factors.
As Belsky (1984) reiterated many times, the combination of risks puts parents more
in danger for adverse parenting.
A review of the gender literature has shown that parenting preschool boys
may be especially stressful for low-income single mothers (Jackson, 1998). Boys
were more likely than girls to react with aggressive and disruptive behavior in
response to a variety of stressors. For example, when both boys and girls were
exposed to serious stressful events, boys were more likely to exhibit behaviors such
as fighting with siblings, clinging to parents, doing poorer in school, and regressing
in their behavior. These maladaptive behaviors elicited punitive and inefficient
responses from parents. While girls may exhibit internalizing problems, parents
have expressed more difficulty in raising boys during stressful times (Richman &
Lansdown, 1988). Studies have also concluded that boys were exposed to more
parental conflict than girls because parents were more likely to fight in front of
them, exposing them to more parental negativity (Hetherington, Camara, &
Featherman, 1983; Jenkins, Rasbash, & OConnor, 2003; Maccoby & Jacklin,
1980). In addition, girls have been more likely than boys to comply with maternal
demands, regardless of whether they are positive or negative (Kuczynski &
Although most studies have revealed that the influence of stress and
psychological functioning on parenting was greater for males, one study found the
opposite. Stress experienced by mothers was significantly more related to parent-
child interactions for girls than for boys. Specifically, parenting stress led mothers
to be less cooperative, more insensitive, and more intrusive with their daughters
(Pianta & Egeland, 1990).
The risk factors discussed thus far leave parents more vulnerable in their
interactions with their children. In contrast, the last construct in the current study,
parenting classes, is hoped to assist parents in their difficulties in the parenting role.
Parenting education generally refers to any form of training that aims to teach
appropriate parenting techniques and provide information on child development.
Parenting classes seek to improve parenting knowledge and skills and to offer
support to parents, hopefully leading to more positive outcomes for children.
Studies examining the effects of parenting education on parenting practices have
resulted in a wide range of findings. Some researchers have provided evidence for
changes in parents attitudes and behaviors (Cox, Pound, Mills, Puckering, & Owen,
1991), while others have failed to see any differences (Little & Mount, 1999).
Additionally, some have confirmed alterations in child outcomes (Petra, 2001;
Webster-Stratton, 1992; Whitehurst, Arnold, Epstein, & Angell, 1994), where others
have not (Goodson, Layzer, St. Pierre, Berstein, & Lopez, 2000).
In one study mothers who attended parenting education were warmer, more
sensitive, more receptive to their childrens needs, and exhibited more effective
control. These women did show significant improvement, although involvement of
7-12 months was required in order to see such progress (Cox et al., 1991). Thomas
(1998) found significant increases in self-esteem and parenting competence in those
who participated in a psychoeducational class in her study. Another study detected
greater confidence, less anxiety, and more child-centered attitudes in mothers, but
found no differences in actual parenting behavior between the program group and
the control group (Little & Mount, 1999). In regards to child outcomes, some
studies have shown that you can achieve alterations in child behavior by teaching
caregivers more effective ways to parent their children and others have shown that
in order to achieve change one must focus on intervening directly with the children.
Parenting programs have been successful in teaching low-income parents techniques
to improve their childrens behaviors and literary skills, leading to decreases in
maladaptive behavior and improvements in reading and vocabulary skills (Webster-
Stratton, 1992; Whitehurst, Arnold, Epstein, & Angell, 1994). Petra (2001) noted
improvement in childrens behavior in school and at home as the result of a thirteen
hour parenting education program which incorporated reality therapy. In addition,
Reynolds, Mavrogenes, Bezruczko, and Hagemann (1996) established that changes
in childrens school achievement were due to changes in parents. Goodson and
colleagues (2000) investigated the effects of a comprehensive child development
program and found no disparities between mothers who received parenting
education and those that did not. Specifically, there were no significant differences
in mothers sensitivity to childrens cues, response to childrens distress, fostering
of socio-emotional growth, or observed behavior of the children. This led them to
believe that improving outcomes for children through parental education is
unsuccessful. Similarly, Barnett (1995) confirmed that improvement in childrens
performance was due to early and direct effects on the children, not program effects
In addition to an effect on parenting practices, parental education has been
shown to reduce levels of stress. Huebner (2002) evaluated a brief clinic-based
education program for high-risk parents of one to three year olds. Significant
effects of the program were found on the parent, the parent-child relationship, and
the child. Following the intervention parents reported significantly less parenting
stress and improvements in family environment quality and parent-child interactions
(Huebner, 2002). Kirkwoods (1990) study revealed a reduction in parental stress
for those individuals who attended parenting classes. Improvements in childrens
prosocial behavior were also evident (Kirkwood, 1990).
The Current Study
Stressors involving financial hardship, family structure, and stressful life
events, as well as psychosocial risks (i.e., depression, distress, and substance abuse)
are all inter-correlated and found to impact parenting practices. The three
components of the family instability and adverse life events (FIA) construct were
based on prior research and have been shown to cause stress for parents. Therefore,
this construct was labeled family instability and adverse life events, following the
rationale that financial stress and family structure were likely to cause family
instability, while stressful life events referred to the adverse life events component.
The second construct, maternal psychosocial risk, was chosen due to the vast
existing research linking family instability and adverse life events to parenting
behaviors through parental functioning, viewed here as psychosocial risk (Brown &
Harris, 1978; Conger et al., 1994; Conger et al., 1995; Kettinger et al., 2000;
McLoyd, 1990; Simons et al., 1993). It is important to note that the assessment
measures used in this study for depression, distress, and substance use did not
provide clinical diagnoses; they simply identified symptoms that were evident in the
sample. In addition to stress and psychosocial risk, parenting education has also
been found to impact parenting practices (Cox et ah, 1991; Thomas, 1998). In this
study parenting education referred to whether or not the respondent attended classes,
lectures, group activities, or other events that provided information on either
parenting or training to help be a better parent.
In the current study, it was hypothesized that stress and concurrent
psychiatric symptomatology would predict maternal behavior in dyadic interactions
with children better than focusing on only one of these variables (Hammen, Gordon,
Burge, Adrian, Jaenicke, & Hiroto, 1987). Therefore, it was hypothesized that a
mediational model would best explain the process by which family instability and
adverse life events, maternal psychosocial risk, and parenting education impact
The Conceptual Model
Figure 1.1 provides an overview of the conceptual model guiding the current
study. This theoretical framework begins with adverse life events associated with
stress and family instability. According to this model, the contextual variables of
FIA are expected to have a direct effect on parenting behavior, maternal
psychosocial risk, and parenting class attendance. FIA are also related to parenting
practices through their impact on maternal psychosocial risk. In addition, FIA and
maternal psychosocial risk will be related to parenting practices through their
influence on parenting education. Parenting education is also expected to directly
impact parenting practices.
As depicted in the model and previously mentioned, the current study
examined both direct and indirect effects of FIA on parenting practices, employing
five variables for this construct. The first two variables used were related to
financial stress and consisted of the income to poverty level and the financial
resources of each participant. Participants income was divided by the poverty
Figure 1.1 The conceptual model
line determined by the 2000 census data, creating an income to poverty ratio.
Financial resources referred to availability of money for various needs such as food,
clothes, supplies, bills, etc. The next two variables in the FIA construct were
associated with family structure and were single parenting and relationship
disturbance. Mothers who were single, never married, separated, divorced, or
windowed were considered single parents. Relationship disturbed mothers included
those who were separated, divorced, or widowed. The last variable in the FIA
construct was a stressful life events variable. Each participant was asked if they
have experienced any of the following: having a relative or a close friend in jail,
experiencing the death of a friend or family member in the past year, being a victim
of a violent crime, knowing someone who was a victim of a violent crime, ever been
abused, ever lived with an addict, had to visit the emergency room with their child
in the past year, the family moved in the past year, and whether the participant had
been bothered by a bill collector in the past year. The stressful life events variable
was a composite which totaled the number of experiences endorsed by each mother,
giving equal weight to each event. As discussed earlier, the psychosocial risk
construct was comprised of maternal depression, maternal distress, and maternal
substance use. The specific parenting practices assessed were maternal sensitivity,
positive regard, detachment, intrusiveness, negative regard, and harshness.
The current study investigated the interrelationships among family instability
and adverse life events, maternal psychosocial risk, parenting classes, and parenting
practices in a preexisting Early Head Start early intervention dataset. The dataset
was not designed for this specific study and therefore certain limitations exist. First
and typical of large datasets, the data points vary for the different variables that
were assessed. Second, due to the vast amount of variables and sample size,
missing data was an issue that needed to be addressed. Using a function called
information maximum likelihood data, structural equation modeling was able to
estimate data for variables that were missing based on estimates of the data
provided. Information maximum likelihood data has been shown to have the least
bias and to be a sound approach (Arbuckle & Wothke, 1999). Despite these
limitations, a preexisting dataset with such a large sample size offers advantages.
The bigger the sample size, the smaller the margin of error making the results more
precise. Also, a larger sample size is more likely to be representative of the
The current research builds upon and extends prior research findings
(Conger, McCarty, Yang, Lahey, & Kropp, 1984; Conger et al., 1995; Kotchick,
1999; Rodgers, 1993) and will potentially add to an understanding of studies that
have investigated similar mediational models. First, the majority of these studies
have focused on adolescents and families from single ethnic groups, primarily
Caucasians or African Americans. Due to the significant impact parents have on the
social, emotional, and cognitive development of young children, the current study
incorporated mothers of preschool children and of Caucasian, African American,
Latino, Asian, American Indian, and biracial ethnicities. Additionally, many studies
have assessed social support as a mediating variable between stress and parenting,
but no studies to date have explored parenting education as a mediating variable.
Educating parents should improve parenting practices, parent-child relationships,
and behavioral problems in children. Such an intervention will normalize and
decrease some of the stress and situations parents are dealing with, allowing parents
to realize that others are struggling in similar areas. Finally, few studies in this area
have focused on maternal substance use in addition to maternal depression and
distress as a psychosocial risk factor. Thus, the present study seeks to expand the
literature by make the following hypotheses:
Hypothesis 1: FIA will be associated with negative parenting practices such that
reported exposure to FIA will be positively correlated with negative parenting.
Hypothesis 2: FIA will be associated with maternal psychosocial risk such that
reported exposure to FIA will be positively correlated with psychosocial risk.
Hypothesis 3: Maternal psychosocial risk will mediate the relationship between
FIA and parenting practices. Specifically, FIA will be associated with maternal
psychosocial risk, which in turn will be associated with parental practices, such that
the more adverse life events there are, the more maternal psychosocial risk there
will be, and the more negative parenting will be.
Hypothesis 4: Parenting classes will be associated with negative parenting practices
such that reported class attendance will be negatively correlated with negative
Hypothesis 5: Participation in parenting classes will mediate the relationship
between FIA and parenting practices, such that the more stress there is, the less
likely parents will attend parenting classes, which will be positively correlated with
Hypothesis 6: Maternal psychosocial risk will mediate the relationship between
FIA and parenting classes, such that the more stress there is, the more psychosocial
risk there will be, which will be negatively correlated with attending parenting
Exploratory Question: Will the gender of the child change the effect that FIA and
maternal psychosocial risk have on parenting practices? I hypothesize that the
gender of the child will affect the relationship between FIA, maternal psychosocial
risk, and parenting practices. The manner in which boys respond to various
stressors is likely to create further demands on parents. When these demands are
combined with already existing stress and psychosocial risk, parenting behaviors
will be more disturbed. Therefore, consistent with prior research, I think that when
the focus child is a boy, FIA and maternal psychosocial risk will have more of a
negative effect on parenting practices.
The present study focused on the data collected at seventeen Early Head
Start program sites in sixteen states across the United States. All mothers and their
toddlers were participants in the longitudinal Early Head Start (EHS) Research and
Evaluation Project. In accord with EHS eligibility requirements, all had incomes at
or below the federal poverty level. The mothers in the current study came from
diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds: 36.4% were Caucasian, 34% African
American, 23.1% Latino, and 4.5% other race (i.e., Asian, American Indian, or
biracial). Specifically, 1093 were Caucasians, 1020 African Americans, 693
Latinos, and 135 Asian, American Indian, or biracial women. The current study
used data collected from mothers at baseline, 24 months, and 36 months (n= 2941).
The mothers were on average 22.7 years old (SD = 5.65), with ages ranging from 12
to 48 and their children were on average 36 months old.
In March of 1996, 41 university research teams submitted proposals to
conduct local research and participate in the national evaluation. ACYF used a
number of criteria and selected 15 research sites out of the 41 to participate in the
evaluation. In order to participate, programs had to be able to recruit twice as many
families as they could serve, had to have a viable research partner, and had to
provide a national geographic distribution that represented the major programmatic
approaches and settings and reflected diverse family characteristics thought to be
typical of Early Head Start families nationally. Two additional sites were added to
the original fifteen, resulting in the full sample of seventeen programs. The
seventeen research programs are distributed across the major regions of the
countrysix in the West, four in the Midwest, four in the Northeast or Mid-
Atlantic, and three in the South and are in both urban and rural settings. Because
the seventeen research programs were not randomly selected, the impact results can
only be formally generalized to the seventeen Early Head Start programs
themselves. Families were, however, randomly assigned through a computer
program to either the program group or to the control group. During the sample
intake period, 3,001 families were randomly assigned to the program (1,513) and
control (1,488) groups.
To be eligible for the EHS Research and Evaluation Project, the primary
caregiver had to be pregnant or have a child younger than twelve months of age.
Once caregivers were determined eligible, demographic data were collected. The
follow-up data used for the Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project
analysis were collected at time points based on (1) the number of months since
random assignment, and (2) the age of the focus child. Each familys use of
services and progress toward self-sufficiency were seen as likely to be a function of
the amount of time since the family applied for Early Head Start Services.
Therefore, these data were collected at selected intervals following random
assignment. Other data, particularly those related to child and family development,
were more likely to be a function of the increasing age of the focus child over time.
Thus, the data collection schedule for these developmental outcomes was tied to the
childrens birth dates.
The Parent Services Interview (PSI) is a structured interview designed for
early intervention for randomized trials and was used in the current study for data
collection 6, 15, and 26 months after random assignment. The current study focuses
on the data obtained at the 26 month time period. The PSI assesses information on
(1) the use of services both in and out of Early Head Start (such as the receipt of
home visits, and of services related to case management, parenting, health,
employment, and child care); (2) progress toward economic self-sufficiency (such
as employment, welfare receipt, and participation in education and training
programs); (3) family health; and (4) childrens health. Most PSIs were conducted
by telephone with the focus childs primary caregiver, although some interviews
were conducted in person for those not reachable by phone. In the current study all
of the FIA variables, the participation in parenting classes variable, and the number
of substances used variable were generated from the PSI at 26 months.
The Three Bag play session is a videotaped semi-structured ten minute
parent-child play session that measures the parents behaviors with the child. At the
start of the play session mothers are presented with three cloth bags. The first
contains a toddler book, the second a set of cooking toys, and the third a Noahs
Ark set. Mothers are invited to play with their children as they wish; the only
request is that they use the book in Bag 1 first, then the toys in Bag 2, and finally the
toys in Bag 3. The instructions are deliberately vague so as to elicit naturally
occurring behaviors. The sessions are conducted in Spanish or English according to
parental preference. The parent and child behaviors are coded by child development
researchers according to 7-point scales adapted from those developed for the
NICHD Study of Early Child Cares Three Box assessment of the quality of
mother-child interaction. Scale ratings range from 1 (very low) to 7 (very high)
based on the quantity and quality of behaviors observed. Tamis-LeMonda,
Shannon, Cabrera, and Lamb (2004) conducted a study using the Three Bag
assessment measure with parents in the longitudinal Early Head Start (EHS)
Research and Evaluation Project. They conducted weekly interrater reliability data
on 15% of the sample and interrater reliabilities ranged from 84% to 100%
agreement, with an average of 93%. For the current study, the following scales are
used: maternal sensitivity, positive regard, supportiveness, detachment,
intrusiveness, and negative regard. This data was collected when the focus child
was 36 months old.
Maternal Sensitivity includes behaviors such as acknowledgement of the
childs affect, vocalizations, and activity, facilitating the childs play, changing the
pace of play when the child seems under-stimulated or over-excited, and
demonstrating developmentally appropriate expectations of behavior.
Maternal Positive Regard includes praising the child, smiling or laughing
with the child, expressing affection, showing empathy for the childs distress, and
showing clear enjoyment of the child.
Maternal Detachment measures the extent to which the mother is inattentive
to the child, inconsistently attentive, or interacts with the child in an indifferent
manner. These mothers may not respond to their childrens talk or expressions, may
not try to engage them with new toys, and are often cold when interacting with their
Maternal Intrusiveness measures the degree to which the mother exerts
control over the childs play instead of allowing for the childs preferences.
Mothers who score high on this scale are observed taking charge of the activity,
grabbing toys, not taking turns, and imposing their own agenda without letting their
child shape the focus or pace of play.
Maternal Negative Regard measures the mothers expression of discontent
with, anger toward, disapproval of, or rejection of the child. High scores on
negative regard indicates that the mother uses a negative or rejecting tone, shows
frustration, anger, or physical roughness toward the child, threatens the child for
failing at a task or not playing the way the mother desires, or belittles the child.
The Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment Short Form
Inventory (HOME-SF) assesses the quality of stimulation and support available to a
child in the home environment (Caldwell & Bradley, 1984). Estimates of internal
consistency have been greater than .80 for total HOME scores (Bradley, 1993).
Both interview and observation are conducted in the home with the childs mother
while the child is present.
Harshness measures harsh or punitive parenting behavior observed during
the home interview. Items on this subscale are based entirely on interviewer
observations of the parent and child during the interview, and include whether the
parent scolds the child, physically restrains the child, or slaps or spanks the child.
The items on this subscale are reverse-coded so that higher scores indicate more
observed harsh behavior. Scores can range from no observed harsh behavior (0) to
all three types of harsh behavior (3).
The Parenting Stress Index Short From (PSI-SF; Abidin, 1995) consists of
36 items, which measure the degree of stress experienced by parents in their
relationship with their children. The PSI manual reported that total stress scores on
the PSI correlated .94 with total scores on the PSI-SF (Abidin, 1995). The Parental
Distress Scale is a 12 item subscale of this measure used in the current study. This
subscale measures the level of distress the parent is feeling in the parenting role
stemming from personal factors such as lack of social support, the perceived
restrictiveness of parenting, depression, and low confidence in ones parenting
efficacy. A sample item from the Parental Distress Scale is You often have the
feeling that you cannot handle things very well. The item responses are coded on a
5-point scale, ranging from strongly disagree (0) to strongly agree (5), with 5
indicating high levels of parental distress. Scores on the twelve-item subscale can
range from twelve to sixty. The Parental Distress Scale has demonstrated good
internal consistency (a .88) (Reitman, Currier, & Stickle, 2002).
The Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression (CES-D) (Radloff,
1977) is a widely used, self-report instrument for assessing depressive symptoms
based on twenty items. At 36 months as part of the nationally designed assessment,
a shortened version of the original scale was administered including only twelve
items. The average of the twelve items at 36 months is used in the current analyses.
Similar to the CES-D, the CESD-SF (Ross, Mirowsky, & Huber, 1983) measures
symptoms of depression such as appetite loss, sleeplessness, loneliness, sadness, and
lethargy. Mothers indicate the frequency with which they experienced each of the
twelve symptoms during the preceding week from rarely (0) to most days (3).
Scores on this scale range from zero to thirty-six, with higher scores indicating more
depressive symptoms. A score of fifteen or higher indicates severe depressive
symptoms. Radloff (1977) reported coefficient alphas for the CES-D of .85 for
community samples and .90 for patient populations. The CES-D is highly
correlated (r = .87) with the Beck Depression Inventory (Santor, Zuroff, Ramsay,
Cervantes, & Palacios, 1995). The shortened version correlates strongly with the
twenty item scale (r = .87), although it does not permit a comparable total score to
Descriptive statistics (means and standard deviations) for the measures of
FIA, maternal psychosocial risk, parenting classes, and negative parenting practices
are presented in Table 3.1. The correlation matrix between all of the variables is
presented in Table 3.2. Bivariate correlational analyses showed that two out of the
five FIA variables were not significantly correlated with the parenting practice
variables. The financial resources variable and the six variables comprising the
parenting practices construct yielded no meaningfully significant relationships,
while the relationship disturbance variable was significantly correlated (r = .05, p <
.05) with positive regard, only one of the six parenting practice variables. This
correlation, although significant, was very low and may not provide useful
predictive information. Such a low correlation was likely statistically significant
due to the large sample size in the study. In any given study an already existing
significant relationship between the independent variables and the dependent
variables must be evident in order to test for mediational effects. A mediating
variable explains this relationship (Baron & Kenny, 1986; Holmbeck, 1997).
Table 3.1: Means and standard deviations for all measured variables
Variables N Mean Std. Deviation
Income/Poverty 1960 1.0363 .80089
Financial Resources 2087 3.9147 .73633
Relationship Disturbance 2086 .1122 .31566
Single Parenting 2086 .4823 .49981
Stressful Life Events 1599 2.0194 1.53360
CES-Depress short form (SF) scale 2095 7.7174 6.99575
Parental Distress Scale 2053 25.1940 9.58659
Substance Use 644 .8634 .61598
Any Parenting Classes 2081 .4661 .49897
Parent Sensitivity 1658 4.5097 1.05043
Parent Positive Regard 1656 3.4921 1.07200
Parent Intrusiveness 1659 1.5877 .78126
Parent Negative Regard 1658 1.2805 .61100
Parent Detachment . 1659 1.2369 .59749
Harsh Parenting 1801 .2793 .61215
Table 3.2: Correlations between family instability and adverse life events variables, psychosocial
risk variables, parenting classes, and parenting practices.
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.
1. Income to
Poverty 2. Financial .30**
Resources 3. Relationship -.08** -.12**
Disturbances 4. Single -.25** -.08** .37**
Parenting 5. Stressful -.13** -.22** .07** .14**
Life Events 6. Sensitivity .16** .01 .04 -.12** -.01
7. Positive .15** -.00 .05* -.10** -.02 .71**
Regard 8. Intrusiveness -.12** -.02 -.02 .13** .01 -.48** -.29**
9. Negative -.11** .02 .03 .14** .11** -.44** -.30** .47**
Regard lO.Detachment -.13** -.01 .00 .08** .02 -.43** -.34** .12**
11.Harsh -.06* .00 -.01 .13** .11** -.16** -.11** .18**
12.Depression -.15** -.23** .07** .05* .32** -.05* .00 .07**
13.Distress -.18** -.29** .05* .06* .17** -.10** -.07** .06*
14.Number of .03 .01 -.00 -.02 .15** .03 .11* -.03
Substances Used 15.Parenting -.01 .01 .00 -.02 .00 .14** .13** -.02
Note. p < .05, ** p < .01.
Table 3.2: (Cont.)
9. 10. 11. 12.
1. Income to
9. Negative -
11 .Harsh .22**
14.Number of .03
.05 .10** -
.09** .09** .38**
-.02 .05 .10*
-.10** .00 .00
Note. p < .05, ** p < .01.
Therefore, the financial resources and the relationship disturbance variables were
excluded from further analyses.
Confirmatory Factor Analysis
Structural equation modeling was used in the current study. Confirmatory
factor analyses were first performed to investigate each of the constructs in the
structural model designed for the current study. This type of analysis determined
whether each of the indicators loaded together, validating a statistically reliable
construct. The FIA construct was the first to be analyzed. The single parenting
variable loaded .51 on this factor, the income to poverty level variable loaded -.49,
and the stressful life events variable loaded .27. The negative parenting practice
construct consisted of six indicators. Parent sensitivity loaded -.98 on this factor,
parent positive regard loaded -.72, parent intrusive loaded .48, parent negative
regard loaded .45, parent detachment loaded .44, and parent harshness loaded .17.
With the exception of parent harshness, the measured indicators in these two
constructs achieved substantial factor loadings. Because the harsh parenting
indicator conceptually belongs with the other parenting indicators a decision was
made to leave this variable in the model for further analysis. The original model
included maternal depression, distress, and substance use as indicators of the
psychosocial risk construct. Confirmatory factor analysis revealed a .66 loading for
depression, a .57 loading for distress, and a .12 loading for substance use.
Substance use failed to load significantly on the maternal psychosocial risk
construct. Rather than removing the variable from the model, a decision was made
to incorporate the number of substances used as a separate observed variable in the
current model. This decision was based on prior research, which has revealed a
significant impact of substance use on parental functioning and disciplinary styles
(Dishion et al., 1988; Nair et al., 1977; Patterson, 1986).
Structural Equation Modeling
Structural equation modeling was used to examine the fit of the conceptual
model presented in this study, which was accomplished through path analysis with
latent variables. Maximum likelihood estimates were obtained using AMOS 5.0.
The current model postulated that FIA would be positively correlated with negative
parenting behavior, maternal psychosocial risk, and substance use and that parenting
education would directly impact parenting practices. Maternal psychosocial risk
and parenting classes were hypothesized to mediate the relationship between FIA
and parenting practices.
Figure 3.1 shows the structural model that was used in the current study and
includes the factor loadings and the direct and indirect standardized path
coefficients for this model. The financial resources and the relationship disturbance
variables were removed from the model and the substance use variable is an
independent mediating variable. This model demonstrated a moderate fit with the
Figure 3.1 The conceptual model after preliminary analyses
X2= 711, df= 59, CMIN/DF = 12.05, CFI = .81
Note. ** = significant at .001; = significant at .01
data: x2(59, N = 3001) = 71 l,p < .001; normed fit index (NFI) = .80; comparative
fit index (CFI) = .81; and 1 root-mean-square error of approximation estimate
(1 RMSEA) = .94. Given that the overall fit of the model was only moderate, it is
important to note that with further model development, significant path coefficients
may change. The parameter estimates of the current model revealed significant
direct path coefficients between FIA and negative parenting practices (P = .11, p <
.01), which showed that mothers who were exposed to family instability and
stressful life events were more likely to negatively parent their children. As
expected, the path coefficients from FIA to maternal psychosocial risk (P = .54,p <
.001) and to substance use (p = .77, p < .001) were both statistically significant and
in the expected direction. FIA was significantly negatively correlated with
parenting classes (P = -.75, p < .001), suggesting that mothers who were exposed to
family instability and stressful life events were less likely to attend parenting
Indirect path coefficients from FIA to negative parenting practices through
maternal psychosocial risk were not significant. The model showed that FIA was
significantly related to psychosocial risk (p .54,p <. 001), but psychosocial risk
was not significantly related to negative parenting practices (P = -10). Thus,
stressful events and family instability increased psychosocial risk, but this effect did
not influence parenting practices. Likewise, indirect effects from FIA to parenting
classes through maternal psychosocial risk were not significant. Additionally,
parenting classes did not mediate the relationship between FIA and negative
parenting practices. Mothers who were exposed to FIA were less likely to attend
parenting classes (p = -.75, p <. 001), nonetheless parenting practices remained
unaffected. These findings suggest that maternal psychosocial risk and parenting
classes did not mediate the expected relationships in the model.
An unanticipated relationship was found between substance use and
parenting classes and parenting practices. Substance use was significantly
positively associated with parenting classes (P = .61,p < .001) and significantly
negatively associated with parenting practices (P = -.55, p < .01). So, mothers who
used a greater number of substances were more likely to attend parenting classes
and less likely to negatively parent their children. Significant indirect path
coefficients were also found between FIA and parenting practices and FIA and
parenting classes, mediated by maternal substance use. Mothers who reported
family instability and adverse life events were more likely to use substances, which
in turn promoted parenting class attendance. These mothers were less likely to
engage in negative parent behavior. Therefore, substance use mediated these
Exploratory Analysis of Gender Effects
To determine whether the gender of the child changed the effect that FIA,
maternal psychosocial risk, and parenting classes had on parenting practices, the
conceptual model in Figure 3.1 was run separately for mothers of boys and for
mothers of girls. Although the overall fit was better when run separately by gender
(CMINATf^ 6.65 for mothers of boys; CMIN/d/" = 6.46 for mothers of girls), there
were not substantial differences between these two models. Factor loadings
associated with FIA, maternal psychosocial risk, and negative parenting practices
were found to be group-invariant. The results of the model fit for mothers of boys
was x2(59, 1510) = 393,p < .001; NFI = .78; CFI = .80; 1 RMSEA = .94 and
for girls was x2(59, N= 1448) = 381,/? < .001; NFI = .79; CFI = .82; 1 RMSEA =
.94. Both models revealed significant direct path coefficients at the .001 level
between FIA and maternal psychosocial risk (P = .59 for males; P = .51 for
females), between FIA and substance use (P = .76 for males; P = .77 for females),
between FIA and parenting classes (P = -.89 for males; P = -.64 for females), and
between substances used and parenting classes (P = .76 for males; p = .59 for
females). Substance use did mediate the relationship between FIA and parenting
classes. However, maternal psychosocial risk and substance use did not mediate the
relationship between FIA and parenting practices. It can be concluded from this
analysis that the gender of the child did not affect relationships among the chosen
variables in the current study.
Exploratory Analysis Toward Further Model Development
In an attempt to find a model that better fit the data, the original model was
modified. In the original model the FIA construct and the maternal psychosocial
risk construct were highly correlated (.54, p < .001) and therefore it was
hypothesized that they may reflect a similar underlying construct, which might be
better captured by a single latent factor. The modified model combined the FIA
construct indicators and the maternal psychosocial risk construct indicators to create
one construct called stressful experiences. This modification did not result in an
improved fit and is shown in Figure 3.2: x2(62, N = 3001) = 807, p < .001; NFI =
.77; CFI = .79; 1 RMSEA = .94. Despite the poor model fit, the direct path
coefficients between stressful experiences and negative parenting practices ((3 = .17,
p < .001), between stressful experiences and parenting classes ((3 = -.21, p < .001),
and between stressful experiences and substance use (P = .31, p < .001) were
significant. The path coefficient from parenting classes to negative parenting
practices was also statistically significant (P = -.12,p < .01). While this finding
differs from the results of the original model, it is consistent with one of the
postulated hypotheses. Similar to the original model, substance use was
significantly positively correlated with parenting classes and negatively correlated
with parenting practices, although the path coefficient from substance use to
negative parenting practices was no longer significant. The result of this path
analysis was still contrary to the hypothesized relationship between substance use
and negative parenting practices. Additionally, substance use mediated the
relationship between stressful experiences and parenting classes. In contrast from
the original model, parenting classes mediated the relationship between stressful
experiences and negative parenting practices such that mothers who experienced
Figure 3.2 The modified conceptual model
X2=m,df= 62, CMIN/DF= 13.01, CFI .76
Note. ** = significant at .001; = significant at .01
stressful events were less likely to use negative parenting practices when they
attended parenting classes. Substance use did not mediate the association between
stressful experiences and negative parenting practices in the modified model. These
findings suggest that those who are exposed to stressful experiences use more
substances (P = .31 ,P< .001), but this effect did not influence parenting practices.
The current study investigated the impact of family instability and adverse
life events and maternal psychosocial risk on parenting practices in an Early Head
Start population. In addition to stress and psychosocial risk, the influence of
parenting education was explored. While the Early Head Start dataset used for this
study was longitudinal in design, not all of the specific variables used were collected
at different time points. The predictor and some of the mediator variables
(parenting classes and substances used) were collected at 26 months since random
assignment, while the maternal psychosocial risk and the outcome variables were
collected at 36 month birth dates. Because the predictor and some of the mediating
variables were collected at the same time point, one must be cautious when inferring
a cause-effect relationship between those variables in the model.
The current study hypothesized that 1) exposure to FIA would be positively
correlated with negative parenting practices; 2) exposure to FIA would be positively
correlated with maternal psychosocial risk; 3) maternal psychosocial risk would
mediate the relationship between FIA and parenting; 4) attending parenting classes
would be negatively correlated with negative parenting practices; 5) parenting
education would mediate the relationship between FIA and parenting practices; 6)
maternal psychosocial risk would mediate the relationship between FIA and
parenting classes, and 7) FIA and maternal psychosocial risk would have more of a
negative effect on parenting practices of mothers who are raising boys. While the
overall fit of the models remained moderate, significant path coefficients revealed
support for some of the hypotheses.
The results of the original model revealed a sizable direct relationship
between FIA and negative parenting practices. The positive association between
FIA and negative parenting practices is consistent with the hypothesized relations
and with prior studies, which have shown less nurturing, less sensitivity, and less
responsive behaviors from parents who have experienced stressful life events
(Belsky, 1984; Weinraub & Wolf, 1983) and from single parents (Demo, 1992;
Nath, Borkowski, Whitman, & Schellenbach, 1991). This finding is also similar to
the results of McLoyds (1990) and Conger and colleagues (1984) study, which
discovered that low-income parents were more likely to use a punitive parenting
style and physical punishment. It is possible that such a high correlation between
FIA and negative parenting practices was due to child characteristics. Studies have
shown that children, especially boys, react sensitively to stressful environments
(Richman & Lansdown, 1988). Perhaps these reactions, which often elicited
inefficient responses from parents, strengthened the impact of FIA on negative
parenting practices. In accordance with the current hypotheses, the results showed
significant direct associations between FIA and maternal psychosocial risk and
between FIA and substance use. Therefore, mothers who were exposed to stressful
events exhibited more depressed and distressed behaviors and used more
substances. These findings replicate extensive literature illustrating that individuals
who experience multiple stressors consume more alcohol and are more depressed,
distressed, and anxious (Brown & Harris, 1978; Ge et al., 1994). Also consistent
with the hypothesized relations, mothers were less likely to attend parenting classes
when they were going through stressful times. This is probably due to the
overwhelming nature of stress and stressful events, leaving parents feeling that a
parenting class could not improve their current situation and would add to their
already extensive list of responsibilities. It is also possible that the mothers in this
particular sample really do not have the time to attend a parenting class due to
working multiple jobs and/or raising their children.
Although the results validated significant paths from FIA to substance use
and from FIA to parenting classes, it is important to note that this portion of the data
was collected cross-sectionally and therefore it is possible that behaviors of the
mothers, such as using substances and not attending parenting classes, predisposed
them to family instability and adverse life events. One must also be cautious when
inferring directionality between the FIA variables and the psychosocial risk
variables. Even though there was a ten month period between the assessments of
the two, the transactional relationship between stress and psychological functioning
makes it very difficult to determine whether the former was responsible for
triggering the latter or vice versa. While the majority of studies have shown that
stressful life events preceded depressive and distress episodes (Brown & Harris,
1978; Mirowsky & Ross, 1983), some studies have found that individuals who first
experienced depression and distress were more vulnerable to family instability and
stressful life events (Frankel & Harmon, 1996). Therefore, one must be cautious
when discussing cause-effect relationships between these constructs.
In the present study FIA was significantly related to maternal psychosocial
risk; however, psychosocial risk did not significantly predict negative parenting
practices. Therefore, maternal psychosocial risk did not mediate the relationship
between these two constructs. Previous research has found an effect of FIA on
parenting practices through maternal psychological functioning (Conger et al., 1994;
Conger et al., 1995; McLoyd, 1990; Simons, Bearman, Conger, & Chao, 1993).
Perhaps the current study failed to find an association because the psychological
measures used may not have tapped the dimensions of psychological functioning
that account for the influence of FIA on parenting practices. This was the case in
Conger and colleagues (1984) study. A measure of a different area of
psychological functioning such as anxiety or antisocial personality disorder may
improve this relationship. Another possible reason for this finding is that additional
variables not examined in the current study could significantly explain the
association between FIA and negative parenting practices. For example, even
though psychosocial risk was evident within this population, a factor such as social
support may have compensated for symptoms of depression or distress and therefore
would have diminished the effect of psychosocial risk.
A significant relationship between parenting classes and parenting practices
was not evident in the current analysis. FIA and substance use seemed to have more
of an effect on parenting than parental education. In addition, maternal
psychosocial risk did not mediate the effect of FIA on parenting classes and
parenting classes did not mediate the effect of FIA on negative parenting practices.
These findings fail to support the postulated indirect relationships. Perhaps
additional factors not examined in this study such as individual characteristics,
coping styles, or available social support may help to explain the associations
between FIA and parenting classes and FIA and negative parenting practices. For
example, a parent may exhibit depressive symptoms but with effective coping styles
or with adequate social support the parent may be able to minimize the impact of
FIA and mental health difficulties on parenting practices.
In regards to substance use, most of the literature which has investigated the
impact of substance use on parenting has disclosed the detrimental effects of this
behavior on parenting practices and parent-child relationships (Arellano, 1996;
Dishion et al., 1988; Nair et al., 1997; Patterson, 1986). The results presented here
suggest a positive relationship between parenting class attendance and substance
use. These mothers were less likely to exhibit negative parenting practices,
providing findings that were unexpected and inconsistent with the literature cited
above. Additionally, substance use mediated the relationship between FIA and
parenting practices and between FIA and parenting classes. Thus, FIA indirectly
affected parenting practices and parenting classes through substance use, which also
resulted in less negative parenting and a higher attendance rate for parenting classes.
While these findings are consistent with literature that has disclosed the influence of
stressful life events and family hardship on substance use (Kettinger et al., 2000),
they are inconsistent with evidence that supports the detrimental impact of
substance use on parenting and parent-child interactions (Arellano, 1996; Dishion et
al., 1988; Nair et al., 1997; Patterson, 1986). It is possible that mothers who
reported greater use of substances may have been referred to parenting classes and
highly encouraged to attend these classes. Some of these mothers may have been
court ordered to participate in parental education and therefore utilized the services
provided by Early Head Start. Also, these mothers may have been more aware of
the opportunities available at EHS and more open to taking advantage of these
Steinglass and colleagues (1977) found that when substance abusing parents
drank they exhibited increased caretaking and warmth. An additional study
conducted by Steinglass and other colleagues (1971) went as far to say that drinking
served as a stabilizing function in some marriages (Steinglass, Weiner, &
Mendelson, 1971). The results of these studies help explain why mothers who used
more substances in the current research exhibited parenting practices that were less
negative. It is possible that in this study substance use served as an available coping
method enabling mothers to more easily deal with the difficulties of raising a young
child while exposed to stressful environmental conditions. Another potential reason
for this finding is that these mothers started with adequate parenting skills and so the
temporary use of substances was not reflected in the quality of their parenting.
The substance use results presented above may differ from studies that have
revealed the negative impact of substance use on parenting due to methodological
considerations such as the adequacy of the substance use variable. The current
study assessed the number of substances used as a measure of substance use.
Mothers reported the number of substances they had used ranging from zero to six
and those who reported higher numbers were considered to use more substances.
The Early Head Start dataset did not include information on the frequency of use.
This is problematic because a participant who endorsed the use of one substance
may in actuality use that one substance a lot more often than a participant who
admitted to using three substances. In addition, data is generally less reliable when
it is dependent on self-report. Because the substance use variable employed in the
current study was not entirely adequate, one must be cautious when interpreting
results involving this variable.
While no studies to date have tested this specific model for gender effects,
earlier literature has illustrated that parenting preschool boys was more difficult and
more stressful than raising preschool girls for mothers, especially low-income single
mothers (Jackson, 1998). When compared to boys, girls were more compliant with
maternal demands in Kuczynski and Kochanskas (1990) study. After reviewing the
present results, it is evident that the gender of the child did not affect the
interrelationships among FIA, psychosocial risk, parental classes, and parenting
practices. An improved model fit was found when the original model was run
separately by the childs gender, although this was somewhat expected due to the
decreased sample size. There were no differences in the separate estimates of path
coefficients between the two models. Thus, the model predicted equally well for
mothers of boys and for mothers of girls. Both models showed significant
relationships between FIA and psychosocial risk, between FIA and substance use,
between FIA and parenting classes, and between substance use and parenting
classes. FIA was also related to parenting classes through substance use. Similar to
the direct effect results of the original model, mothers who experienced FIA
endorsed more depressive and distress symptoms and reported using a greater
number of substances. Also, mothers who experienced elevated rates of FIA were
less likely to attend parenting classes. Discussed previously and somewhat
surprising was that as the number of substances used by mothers increased, so did
the likelihood that they would participate in a parenting class.
This lack of gender effects is inconsistent with prior research and does not
support the proposed hypothesis. Perhaps this is because the participants used in the
current study were a homogeneous sample with incomes at or below the federal
poverty level and therefore little variance existed among the explored constructs.
Low-income parents are more likely to experience stressful life events and family
instability such as divorce, single parenting, job loss, and inadequate financial
resources (McLanahan & Booth, 1989; Sandler, 1980). More specifically, when
compared to middle-class families, low income families experienced two to four
times more major stressors (Roghmann, Hecht, & Haggerty, 1975) and were more
likely to suffer mental health problems following these stressors (McLoyd, 1990). It
is possible that mothers in this study were accustomed to a stressful way of life and
therefore the gender of their child did not impact the situation or their functioning as
parents. In addition, only the gender of the focus child was taken into account and
maybe a significant effect would be evident if the gender of all of the children in
each family were considered. Replicated studies are needed that investigate whether
the current mediational model differs for mothers of boys and mothers of girls.
The original model did not prove to be a better fit when it was modified.
However, during this process some of the direct and indirect significant paths
remained significant, others became non-significant, and some that were not initially
significant became significant. The significant remaining direct paths showed that
mothers who endorsed stressful experiences and depressive and distress symptoms
were more likely to negatively parent their children and to use substances, and less
likely to attend parenting classes. Mothers who used substances were more likely to
attend parenting classes. Maternal substance use continued to mediate the
relationship between FIA and parenting classes. Contrary to the original model, the
data indicated that parenting classes and negative parenting practices were
significantly negatively associated. Parents who attended parenting classes were
less likely to use negative parental discipline. It is possible that these parents
benefited from training and information learned in the parenting class, in tum
increasing positive disciplinary techniques, but more likely that these parents were
higher functioning parents prior to the class. These findings support studies which
concluded that mothers who partook in parental education were warmer, more
sensitive, and more receptive towards their children, and exhibited increased
parenting competence (Cox et al., 1991; Thomas, 1998). Regardless of the reason
for attendance, these mothers showed less negative parenting styles. This direct
association supports the proposed hypothesis. In addition, combining the FIA and
the maternal psychosocial risk constructs created a significant indirect pathway from
FIA to parenting practices through parenting classes that did not exist in the original
model. As hypothesized, mothers who were exposed to stressful experiences were
less likely to negatively parent their children when they attended some form of
The current study adds to the literature in several ways. It contributes to a
growing body of research that has documented the need to assess the effect of stress
and parental functioning on parenting. A major contribution of this study is that
EHS has the resources to use these findings and target interventions towards areas
that put parents in this sample at increased risk for poor parenting. Specifically,
family instability and adverse life events had a detrimental influence on parenting
practices, psychosocial risk, substance use, and parenting class attendance. Mothers
experienced increased risk in all of these areas during stressful times. Because
many mothers in this study were exposed to stressful experiences, and given the
deleterious impact of stress, EHS can work with parents on techniques geared
towards relaxing, and reducing and coping with high stress environments.
The uniqueness of the present study also adds to the literature. This is the
only study to date that has incorporated a parenting class variable in the
investigation of direct and indirect relations between stressful situations,
psychosocial risk, and parenting. Unlike most other studies testing similar
mediational models, this study focused on families with pre-school aged children
and with diverse ethnic backgrounds. Also, the inclusion of a substance use
variable added to the current findings. Although one must interpret these findings
with caution, mothers who used substances attended more parenting classes when
compared to depressed, distressed, and FIA exposed mothers. If this increase in
parenting class attendance was due to referrals made to these mothers, it is highly
probable that referring mothers who are experiencing family instability and adverse
life events and those who exhibit psychopathological symptoms would have the
same affect. Because there are distinctive benefits of participating in a parenting
class, it is imperative to encourage parents to attend some form of parental
education, which will likely result in increased positive disciplinary practices. It is
also possible that these women as a whole were less defensive and more open to
program opportunities and therefore, more likely to attend a parenting class.
Overall, this study suggests that parental education may be helpful for those
in the parenting role and that mothers who experience family instability and adverse
life events may be especially at risk for negative parenting practices, leaving their
children vulnerable to develop socioemotional difficulties. Considering the
devastating effects of negative parenting on child development and child adjustment
(Baumrind, 1967; 1970; 1972; 1989; Conger et al., 1995; Sears, Maccoby, & Levin,
1957), it is imperative to target intervention in appropriate areas.
Despite these contributions, this study has several limitations. First, as
previously mentioned, the predictor and some of the mediating variables were
collected at the same time point. As a result, caution should be exercised in
concluding a cause-effect relationship between those constructs. Second, with the
exception of the observation based parenting practice variables, all other variables
used in this analysis were dependent on maternal self-report. Any time data is
collected via self-report there is an inherent bias towards underreporting and it is
often less reliable. It is very possible that mothers endorsed inaccurate depressive
and distress symptoms, and less substance use, skewing the results. Also, when
talking to an unfamiliar data collector mothers may have denied using negative
parenting styles in their home. Third, the substance use variable incorporated in the
current study was not entirely adequate. It was especially problematic because it
failed to consider the frequency of use. A more sufficient measure of substance use
would have improved this study. Another limitation is that several indicators for the
FIA construct were relatively weak. Although the variables in this construct were
based on empirical literature, stressful life events is a complicated variable because
individuals react differently to various stressors and some events such as a death in
the family may be more stressful than other events such as being bothered by a bill
collector. Also, what may be viewed as stressful to one parent may not be viewed
as stressful to another. Therefore, one individual may develop symptoms following
a stressful event, while another may not and it is difficult to use these types of
events as a measure of stress. Additional indicators, not available in the EHS
dataset, could have improved the fit and helped clarify the explored relationships.
Perhaps incorporating cultural factors, child temperament, or social support into the
model would have provided a better fit. Finally, all of the participants in the current
study were from low-income families and so the results of this research can only be
generalized to the population studied.
Because parenting is a complex process with multiple determinants, many
factors have been shown to influence parenting styles. Future studies should
consider testing the current model with a more heterogeneous sample, perhaps a
sample with a less limited range of income, which may yield different results.
Additional studies are needed that look at whether the relationships between family
instability and adverse life events, psychosocial risk, parenting classes, and
parenting practices differ for mothers of boys and mothers of girls and for mothers
of varying ethnicities. This study showed that family instability and adverse life
events had a detrimental impact on maternal functioning and that parenting classes
may be helpful for mothers. Future studies should investigate ways to minimize the
effects of stress and maximize parenting class attendance. In the current study,
maternal psychosocial risk did not mediate the relationship between FIA and
negative parenting practices. Researchers conducting studies with the EFIS sample
could consider examining additional indirect pathways from stressful experiences to
parenting practices in the hopes of discovering variables that explain this
relationship. Individual characteristics of parents and children, coping styles, and
levels of social support may impact the risk of harmful parenting under stressful
conditions. Prospective research with EHS data may want to determine if the
conceptual model would be a better fit using data from different time points.
Additionally, future studies with this sample may want to use a more adequate
measure of substance use and exclude financial stress variables because the majority
of people in this sample have financial stress. Despite the moderate fit of the
current model and the lack of evidence for some of the hypothesized relations, the
results of this study suggest that parenting stress, maternal symptomatology, and
parenting classes have implications for parenting behavior.
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