New research sheds light on several important factors that influence parents’ perceptions of stress. The findings, published in Scientific Reports, provide evidence that history of childhood trauma, loneliness, and perceived control over one’s life all independently contribute to perceived stress among parents.
Becoming a parent is a major life event that involves significant changes in priorities, routines, and relationships. While some level of stress is normal and even motivating for effective parenting, chronic or extreme stress related to parenting has been shown to negatively impact parenting behaviors and, consequently, child outcomes. Therefore, understanding the factors influencing parents’ perceptions of stress can inform targeted interventions for parents at risk of experiencing high levels of stress.
The researchers aimed to examine the connections between perceived control, loneliness, childhood trauma, and physiological responses and their influence on parents’ perceptions of stress. They conducted two parallel studies, a cross-sectional study and a longitudinal study, to explore the relationships between these variables and caregivers’ reported stress.
“The global COVID-19 pandemic brought to the forefront the importance of identifying strategies to reduce and ameliorate stress,” explained study author Karen Smith, an assistant professor at Rutgers University and director of the Stress Psychophysiology and Affective Neuroscience (SPAN) Lab.
“Increases in stress during the pandemic were especially pronounced in parents, making it particularly important to better understand what factors contribute to increases in parents’ risk for chronic stress. In the current research, we leveraged two existing data sets we had collected prior to the pandemic to better understand how loneliness, perceived control, and childhood trauma, along with indicators of socioeconomic risk, influence parents’ experiences of stress.”
The cross-sectional study included 153 primary caregivers of children aged 0-6 years in California, the majority of whom were female. The participants were from diverse racial backgrounds and had varying income levels.
The researchers conducted primarily in-home interviews with the primary caregivers, collecting data on demographics, access to services, health care, beliefs about parenting, household and neighborhood context, and affective processes. Participants were asked to complete questionnaires assessing perceived stress, loneliness, perceived control, and childhood trauma experiences.
A subset of 56 participants also wore an ambulatory device to collect data on parasympathetic autonomic cardiac functioning (PNS).
The longitudinal study included a different group of 154 primary caregivers of children aged 0-12 years in Indiana. The participants completed surveys measuring perceived stress, control, loneliness, and childhood trauma at the beginning and end of a 10-week parenting program. The program was designed to provide parents with education, skills, and support to improve their parenting abilities and enhance family well-being.
Both studies consistently found that perceived control, loneliness, and childhood trauma played significant roles in caregivers’ perceptions of stress. Higher levels of perceived control were associated with reduced stress, while higher levels of loneliness and childhood trauma were linked to increased stress.
“Overall, the findings were consistent with what we would expect based on the broader stress literature, but it was somewhat surprising how consistent the findings were across two samples of parents from very different parts of the United States (Elkhart, IN and Berkeley, CA),” Smith said.
In addition, parents who experienced the most significant increases in their perceived sense of control during the parenting program also showed the most substantial reductions in their perceived stress levels during the 10-week parenting program. The findings provide evidence that strategies and programs focused on empowering parents to have more control over various aspects of their lives may have a strong positive impact on their well-being.
“Loneliness, perceived control, and childhood trauma history all independently influence parents’ perceptions of stress,” Smith told PsyPost. “Additionally, these factors appear to account for more variability in perceptions of stress than indices of environmental socioeconomic stress like income or education. These findings suggest interventions aimed at targeting perceptions of control or loneliness may have efficacy in ameliorating extreme stress associated with parenting.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“This research focused on parents’ outcomes, but future research should assess how changes in parents stress, loneliness, and control influence children’s behavioral and emotional development,” Smith explained. “Additionally, more longitudinal research assessing how these factors influence each other over time is necessary to understand how changes in loneliness and control contribute to perceptions of stress in parents.”
While there are limitations to this research, it represents an important initial step in a larger effort to address the impact of parenting programs on individuals at high risk of negative parenting-related outcomes. Further research in this area can help refine and expand our understanding of these complex relationships and improve interventions to support families.
The study, “Perceived control, loneliness, early-life stress, and parents’ perceptions of stress“, was authored by Karen E. Smith, Eileen Graf, Kelly E. Faig, Stephanie J. Dimitroff, Frederica Rockwood, Marc W. Hernandez, and Greg J. Norman.