Speaker: Devil's in Details of Parenting
By Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu
Your child is lying on the floor in the aisle of a grocery store, screaming for a cookie. You stand by embarrassed, not sure what to do, aware that the rest of the customers in the store have their eyes on you. They're probably thinking you're a terrible parent.
At times like this, parenting can seem pretty stressful.
Compared with some of the major life events that can affect parents, tantrums are small stuff. But these and other hassles of daily life may have more impact on parenting behavior than the major life stresses, according to Keith Crnic (pronounced Sernik), professor and head of the psychology department at Penn State University and chair of the Maternal and Child Health Research Committee, a federal grant policy and review group.
This finding is among the results of an ongoing study of 246 families of young children in Pennsylvania and California, including 109 with children identified as having developmental delays. Crnic presented some of the results of the study, which looks at the determinants of stress and its effects on families and child development, in a seminar at UConn Tuesday.
The seminar was part of a series offered by the Center for the Study of Culture, Health and Human Development in the School of Family Studies.
Crnic said early studies of stress in the 1940s and 1950s looked at the effect of major life events, such as the death of a spouse, on people's health.
He began studying parents' psychological reactions to major stresses, but to his surprise, he found that parents of preemies were no more stressed than parents of full-term babies.
"The epiphany," he said, "came on the first weekend I spent alone with my kids," then ages 41/2 and 2. "We spent Friday partying, but by Sunday I was yelling at them for the same stuff we were having fun with on Friday."
That was when he realized stress "is not about the big things, it's about the daily events," he said. "It has a lot to do with the normal things kids do that drive their parents crazy."
He decided to write down all the things his kids were doing that bothered him, and then started asking other parents. The resulting lists he turned into questionnaires for use in his research.
One survey Crnic developed asked parents to rate how they feel about such everyday behaviors as kids' whining, not doing what they are asked without nagging, difficulties at mealtime, and sibling fights that require a referee.
The questions seemed to strike a chord with parents of young children. Usually, he said, parents are reluctant to fill out questionnaires, but they were eager to complete this one.
He also asked how parents feel about everyday parenting challenges such as clearing up toys or food, having kids constantly underfoot, or coping with kids' schedules that interfere with meeting household needs.
In addition to survey data, the study involved home observation of families over a two-year period beginning when the child is three years old, lab observation, developmental assessments and stress assessments. The home observations took place in the late afternoon or early evening, "when families are typically at their worst."
Crnic said stress is difficult to define, but for purposes of the study he and his colleagues interpreted stress as the psychological response to a challenge that exceeds a person's ability to cope. In other words, the challenging event may or may not result in stress, depending on the person's response to it.
"Stress and coping are intimately entangled," he said. "If you're good at coping, then you're not feeling stress. It's not that you don't experience the stressor, but you don't experience stress, because you're good at coping."
Stress reactions influence both parents' psychological well-being and parenting processes, he said, but the effects on children are not all one way. He stressed the importance of what kids "bring to the table," such as temperament. Particular characteristics in kids can have a marked effect on how family members behave with one another, Crnic said.
Stressful events do not necessarily have an adverse effect on children's development, he said. The way families react to stress and help kids deal with it can help children develop ways to regulate their own behavior, and this in turn helps them develop competencies.