The onset of the Great Recession and, more generally, deteriorating economic conditions lead mothers to engage in harsh parenting, such as hitting or shouting at children, according to a study by FAS sociologist Dohoon Lee and his colleagues. But the effect is only found in mothers who carry a gene variation that makes them more likely to react to their environment.
The study, which also included researchers at Columbia University, Princeton University, and Pennsylvania State University’s College of Medicine, appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“It’s commonly thought that economic hardship within families leads to stress, which, in turn, leads to deterioration of parenting quality,” says Lee, an assistant professor of sociology at NYU and lead author of the paper. “But these findings show that an economic downturn in the larger community can adversely affect parenting—regardless of the conditions individual families face.”
The researchers found that harsh parenting increased as economic conditions worsened only for those with what has been called the “sensitive” allele, or variation, of the DRD2 Taq1A genotype, which controls the synthesis of dopamine, a behavior-regulating chemical in the brain.
Deteriorating economic conditions had no effect on the level of harsh parenting of mothers without the sensitive allele. Just more than half of the mothers in the study had the sensitive, or T, allele.
Likewise, the researchers found that mothers with the sensitive allele had lower levels of harsh parenting when economic conditions were improving compared with those without the sensitive allele.
The findings were based on data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFS), a population-based, birth cohort study conducted by researchers at Princeton and Columbia of nearly 5,000 children born in 20 large American cities between 1998 and 2000.
The results showed that, contrary to common perceptions, harsh parenting was not positively associated with high levels of unemployment among those studied. Rather, these behaviors were linked to increases in a city’s unemployment rate and declines in national consumer sentiment, or confidence, in the economy.
The researchers concluded that it is the anticipation of adversity—fear of losing one’s job due to deteriorating economic conditions—that is a more important determinant of harsh parenting than poor economic conditions or even actual economic hardship a family faces.