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Parenting Stress and Child Adjustment: Some Old

Hypotheses and New Questions

Kirby Deater-Deckard, University of Oregon

Individual dfirences in parenting stress, experienced

by most parents as those aversive feelings that are
associated with the demands of the parenting role,
have been shown to be an important aspect of parent,
child, and family functioning. A definition of parenting
stress is provided, along with its application t o more
general stress models. Three implicit hypotheses in
much of the past research on parenting stress and behavior am evaluated (a) parenting stress i s causally
related t o poor parenting, (b) poor parenting is causally
related to problems in child adjustment, and (c) parenting behavior mediates the associations between pamnt-

ing stress and child adjustment. In addition, three quertions for future research regarding wlthin-family and
within-indhridual variation in parenting stress are
raised: (a) Is parenting stress genetiully influenced? (b)
Do mothers and fathers show similar or different levels

of parenting stress? (c) Is parenting stress child spe-

clfic within families?

Key words: parenting, stress, discipline, psychopathology. fain Psycho1 Sci Prac 5314-332, 19981
It goes without saying that parenthood presents new challenges and rewards. Parenthood holds obvious advantages
fiom an evolutionary standpoint (fitness is defined by
reproduction) but also provides important social, psychological, and (in some societies) economic benefits. In
addition, psychologists have always been interested in the
family environment and parenting in particular, given that

Address correspondence to Kirby Deater-Deckard, Ph.D.,

Department of Psychology 1227, University of Oregon,
Eugene, OR 97403-1227.


many psychiatric disorders appear to be fimilial in nature.

It is not surprising that a smooth transition into parenthood, and low stress in the parenting role throughout the
life span, is viewed by most psychologists and psychiatrists
as critically important to positive parent and child outcomes.
Specifically, psychological &stress that arises from the
demands of parenting has been shown to be a particularly
important aspect of the development of dyshnctional
parent-child relationships and an important risk factor for
adult and child psychopathology. The emphasis of this
review is on these psychological costs of parenthoodthat is, the stress reaction to the demands ofbeing a parent. The
primary aim of this selective review is to shed light on the
sources of individual dflerences in parenting stress and how
parenting stress influences and is influenced by adult and
child psychological adjustment. A definition of parenting
stress is proposed, along with its application to a more
general psychological and physiological stress model. In
addition, three hypotheses implicit in most of the past
research on parenting stress, parenting behavior, and child
adjustment are considered, and three new questions are

Researchen have known for some time that adult psychosocial fbnctioning is intimately linked to individual
differences in stresshl life experiences and circumstances.
Having more stressful life events has been shown to be
correlated with psychosocial adjustment for children and
adults (Brown & Harris, 1989; Goodyer, 1990). Life stress
is probably role specific-that is, stress in the parenting
role is qualitatively distinct fiom stress in other distinct
domains (see Creasey & Reese, 1996). Although there is
likely to be some spillover across these domains (e.g.,


between work-related and parenting-related stress and

coping; see Bamett, Marshall, & Singer, 1992). parenting
stress may make a unique prediction to adjustment in
adulthood and, more importantly, may be more strongly
related to parenting behavior and child adjustment than
individual differences in more general stressfu! life events
and circumstances (Creasey & Reese, 1996; Quittner,
Glueckauf, &Jackson, 1990). For these reasons, exploring
parenting stress is critically important to our understanding of family dysfunction and individual differences in
normal behavior and psychopathology, given that all children have care-givers and most children become parents.
Happily, for most parents the experience of parenthood is a positive one overall. For example, a mothers
positive mood regarding her new infant increases in the
months following the childs birth (Fleming, Ruble,
Flett, & Van Wagner, 1990; Moss, Bolland, Foxman, &
Owen, 1986). However, this same period following the
arrival of the new family member can be marked by
increased conflict and negativity within family relationships, evidenced as a decrease in marital satisfaction for
some mothers and fathers (Lavee, Sharlin, & Katz, 1996;
Rubing, Fleming, Hackel, & Stangor, 1988; Schumm &
Bugaighis, 1986) and, in about 10-15% of cases, as clinical
levels of depression for both women and men (Ballard &
Davis, 1996; OHara & Swain, 1996). From childbirth
onward, parenthood presents new demands that carry
some risk for stress that can lead to decrements in psychological health and well-being.
Central to a definition of parenting stress is the parents
perceptions of having access to available resources for
meeting the demands of parenthood (including knowledge about, and competence at, the day-to-day as well as
long-term tasks of parenting), relative to the perceived
demands of the parenting role (Deater-Deckard & Scam,
1996), that is, when expectations do not match perceptions of available resources (see Goldstein, 1995). Parenting is therefore hypothesized to be more stressful for
parents who have less knowledge, less perceived competence, and fewer emotional and instrumental supports
(e.g., help from partners, family members, and fiends)
and, perhaps most importantly, when the parent views the
child or children as being behaviorally difficult (Mash &
Johnston, 1990).
Parenting stress can be defined as the aversive psychological reaction to the demands of being a parent. Parenting stress can not be indexed by a single measure but is



instead represented as a complex process linking (a) the

task demands of parenting, (b) the parents psychological
well-being and behavior, (c) the qualities of the parentchild relationship, and (d) the childs psychosocial adjustment. Parenting stress is experienced as negative feelings
toward the self and toward the child or children, and by
definition these negative feelings are directly attributable
to the demands of parenthood.
Some intervention studies have focused on parents
who are identified as having poor parenting and coping
skills, either because they themselves have been clinically
referred, or because their children have been referred.
Reducing levels of parenting stress is important not only
for improving the psychological health of the parent but
also because it may improve the efficacy of interventions
that are targeting the childs behavioral problems (Kazdin,
1995). The handful of intervention studies that have
focused on explicit measures of parenting stress have
shown that levels of parenting stress can be reduced
through cognitive and behavioral therapies, particularly if
the intervention has a parent education component
(Anastopoulos, Shelton, DuPaul, & Guevremont, 1993;
Dihoff et al., 1994; Felner et al., 1994; McBride, 1991;
Pisterman et al., 1992; Telleen, Herzog, & Kilbane, 1989;
but see Winton, 1990). The effect sizes from these studies
are ofien substantial (usually at least one half of a standard
deviation difference between the treatment and control
groups). Whether the amelioration of parenting stress is
durable remains to be seen, depending on the results of
long-term follow-up studies that still need to be conducted.
Although much of the research on parenting stress has
focused on referred parents or children, there is mounting
evidence that parenting stress varies continuously from
low to very high levels: All parents experience parenting
stress to some degree (Crnic & Greenberg, 1990). Furthermore, it appears that the more mundane, day-to-day
hassles of parenting may actually be more strongly
related to individual and firmly functioning than
parenting-related stressful events, some of which are quite
rare in the population (Creasey & Reese, 1996). Thus,
although parenting stress is related to adult psychopathology, parenting stress is not thought to be epiphenomenal.
Instead, parenting stress can be thought of as normal or
extreme and is also thought to be distinct from other
domains of stress and specific domains of adult and fam-.
ily functioning.



Applying a general theory of psychological or physiological stress is useful for understanding the complex processes
that link the demands of parenting, stress in the parenting
role, and parenting behavior. The stress process includes
four components: (a) an external, causal went or agent; (b)
a cognitive appraisal of this event or agent to determine
whether it is noxious or not; (c) coping mechanisms to
reduce the noxiousness of this event or agent; and (d) consequential effects on the mind and body, or the stress reaction (Lazarus, 1993).
The Child and Parenting Role as Causal Agents

A theory of parenting stress must posit the external causal

event as parenthood, or the causal agent as the child or
children for whom the parent has ultimate responsibility.
The dependency of an infant on its adult caregivers presents a complex set ofdemands on parents not experienced
before the arrival of a child-demands for food, comfort,
and attention made by crying, for instance-that are
stresshl to most parents. Children become more autonomous as they develop, but they continue to place demands
on their parents-demands that are not faced by childless
adults. Similarly, parents must continuously meet their
own needs while they meet the demands of the social role
of parenthood (Alexander & Higgins, 1993), for example,
the expectation that the parent will make an investment
in the care and rearing of the child to the benefit of the
larger society. These social expectations are arguably at the
heart of many family issues, for instance, whether women
of young children should work outside the home,
whether children should be cared for by nonparental caregivers, or whether maintaining household f d y structure
should take precedent over parental happiness in the case
of marital conflict and dissolution.

When given an external agent or agents (the child and the

social role of parenthood), there are individual differences
between families (and possibly differences between cultures) in parents cognitive appraisals of stressors. Attributions about the sources of a childs noxious behaviors are
critically important (Dix, 1993), with inferences of greater
child responsibility and intention for misbehaviors leading
to an enhanced parenting stress reaction (Dix, Ruble, &
Zambarano, 1989). Parents-even those within the same
family-have different views about the appropriateness of


child misbehaviors and the sources of these behaviors. It

is not surprising that the correlations between mothers
and fathers reports of child behavior problems are sometimes only modest or moderate in magnitude and d o not
converge very highly with teachers ratings (see Achenbach, McConaughy, & Howell, 1987).
This is not to say that there are not any universally
stressful aspects of children and parenthood, however.
Most adults find certain types of infant cries to be highly
aversive (Frodi & Lamb, 1980; Zeslund, Sale, Maio, Huntington, & Weiseman, 1985), and there are also generally
universal views of physical attractiveness based on bilateral
symmetry and the lack ofphysical anomalies (Thornhill &
Gangestad, 1994). However, individual differences in parents appraisals of stressors are far more important to our
understanding of parenting stress, given that these individual differences in the stress reaction are probably most
important to our understanding of individual differences
in parents psychosocial adjustment.
Coping Mechanisms

Cognitive attributes of the parent, particularly coping

strategies, are an integral part of parenting stress. Being
prepared for a pregnancy is associated with lower amounts
of parenting stress (Sommer et al., 1993). Passive, emotionally focused coping strategies such as denial and rumination are maladaptive coping strategies that are related to
greater parenting stress (Barnett, Hall, & Bramlett, 1990;
Miller et al., 1992). In contrast, positive parental beliefsyst e r n (Frey, Greenberg, & Fewell, 1989) and problemfocused coping strategies (Miller, Gordon, Daniele, &
Diller, 1992) are associated with lower levels of parenting
stress. Adaptive coping mechanisms not only dampen the
stress reaction, but also dampen the effects of the stress
reaction on qualities of the parent-child relationship (i.e.,
coping mechanisms mediate the relation between parenting stress and the quahty of the parent-child relationship).
For example, Jarvis and Creasey (1991) found that the use
of positive reappraisal was related to a lower correlation
between parenting stress and infant attachment security.
Thus, a positive coping style is probably a crucial protective factor against potential problems in parenting behavior arising fiom increased parenting stress.
Stress Reaction

The resulting stress reaction is readily observed as the parents behavior and affect. Most studes of parenting stress

VS N 3 , FALL 1998


have focused on the impact of stress on parenting behavior

(e.g., discipline) and feelings toward the child (e.g., negativity and warmth), but it is likely that the stress reaction
is more general, influencing the parents overall psychological well-being.
There are some studies that have demonstrated links
between stable characteristics of parents and parenting
stress. Higher parenting stress has been linked to depression (Anastopoulos, Guevremont, Shelton, & DuPaul,
1992; Gelfand, Teti, & Fox, 1992), separation anxiety
(Deater-Deckard, Scarr, McCartney, & Eisenberg, 1994),
type-A personality (Forgays, 1992), and drug use (Kelley,
1992). Psychopathology and personality are likely moderators of the links between social and economic disadvantage and parenting stress (Gelfand et al., 1992). with
higher levels of psychopathology exacerbating the effects
of these stressful circumstances on parenting stress.
The availability and accessibility of emotional support
are crucial ingredients in positive adaptation to parenting,
whereby support buffers the individual from the negative
effects of these stressors. Parenting stress is lower for parents who have more perceived emotional and instrumental support from their partners, family members, and
friends (Abidin & Brunner, 1995; Roggman, Moe,
Hart, & Forthun, 1994), although this relation may be
culturally bound (see Pearson & Chan, 1993) and may
depend on the gender of the parent (Deater-Deckard &
Scarr, 1996).
The social support-parenting stress link is particularly
important for identifiable high-risk groups of parents.
Adolescent mothers are at risk for high levels of parenting
stress (Passino et al., 1993), but emotional support, and in
particular support from &ends, is related to lower parenting stress for these young mothers (Richardson, Barbour, & Bubenzer, 1995). Social support may also be
associated with lower parenting stress among other risk
groups, such as economically disadvantaged parents (Adamakos et al., 1986) and parents ofchronically ill or handicapped children (Frey et al., 1989; Hauenstein, 1990).
Having sufficient social support may prevent an elevation
in parenting stress from negatively affecting parenting
behavior (Rodgers, 1993) and may ameliorate the increase
in parenting stress that arises from more general life stress
(Nakagawa, Teti, &Lamb, 1992). Marital satisfaction, particularly among women, may also reduce the link
between parenting stress and parenting behavior (DeaterDeckard & Scarr, 1996; Webster-Stratton, 1988). Sup-



port, particularly from a spouse or partner, may also buffer

parents from the negative effects of having a child who is
seriously ill (Frank et al., 1991) or from the effects ofthe
parents own psychopathology (Koeske Si Koeske, 1990).
Alternately, social support may not serve as a buffer (a statistical moderator) but may instead directly mediate the
relation between parenting stress and parental adjustment
(see Quittner et al., 1990).

Theories of the determinants of parenting behavior often

include the proposition (explicitly or implicitly) that the
psychological stress reaction-most
often indexed by
global measures of the psychological adjustment of the
parent-manifests itself in inept parental behavior (see
Abidin, 1992; Belsky, 1984). This deterioration in the
quality of parenting behavior, in turn, may lead to problems in emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and physicd
development for the child.
Common to most of these theories of parenting stress
and behavior are three testable hypotheses regarding the
role of parenting stress in child psychopathology. The first
hypothesis is that parenting stress causally influences parenting behavior, such that parents who are more stressed
show poorer parenting. Those high in parenting stress
will be less responsive, more authoritarian, and possibly
neglecthl or abusive in extreme cases, because highly
stressed parents are more likely to abandon planful, childcentered parental behavior and to rely instead on reactive,
adult-centered behaviors. The second hypothesis is that
this deterioration in the positive aspects of parenting
behavior will causally influence childrens behavior,
whereby increases in inept parental behavior will lead to
poorer cognitive and social-emotional development outcomes for the child. The third hypothesis is that individual
differences in parenting behavior will mediate the association between parenting stress and child outcome-that is,
parenting behavior is the proximal process that produces
the effects of parenting stress on child outcomes.
Hypothesis 1: Parenting Stress Causes Poor Parenting

There have been numerous studies of the links between

parenting stress and parenting behavior, all of which converge on the finding that parenting stress and parenting
behavior covary, with more stress associated with poorer
parenting behavior. Most research of this kind has empha-

31 7

sized global indicators of stress such as family income and

employment and the degree of covariation between
socioeconomic circumstances and parenting behavior
(Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 1994). Having adequate economic resources is linked to parenting behavior in part
through its impact on stress in the parenting role, although
this mediation through parenting stress is ofien not measured directly. Family income, education, and job satisfaction have all been shown to be negatively correlated with
parenting stress (Baldwin, Brown, & Milan, 1995; Barnett, Marshall, & Sayer, 1992).
More recently, research on parenting stress and parenting behavior has focused on the more proximal psychological stress reaction of the parent by directly measuring
parents feelings about themselves and their children.
Regardless of the precise nature of the measure of the
stress reaction, these studies have shown that parents who
report higher levels of parenting stress are more likely to
be authoritarian, harsh, and negative in their parenting
(Belsky, Woodworth, & Crnic, 1996; Conger, Patterson, & Ge, 1995; Deater-Deckard & Scam, 1996; Rodgers, 1993; Stoiber & Houghton, 1994) and less involved
with their children (McBride & Mills, 1994). These
stressed parents are less likely to provide adequate stimulation for their child or children through social interactions
(Adamakos et al., 1986) and are more likely to have a child
with an insecure attachment relationshlp (Jarvis &
Creasey, 1991; Teti, Nakagawa, Das, & Wirth, 1991). Not
surprisingly, parenting stress has been implicated as a critically important factor in the etiology of child abuse and
neglect (Chan, 1994; Holden & Banez, 1996; Mash &
Johnston, 1983). It is possible that the inaccessibility of
planhl, child-centered parenting behaviors becomes critical in the face of psychological distress.
Hypothesis 2: Poor Parenting Causes Maladjustmentin

A review of the vast literature on parenting and child

adjustment is beyond the scope of this article. However,
several reviews have pointed to the consistent finding of
a modest to moderate correlation between parenting
behavior and child adjustment, both in unselected (e.g.,
community) and selected (e.g., clinical) samples. These
studies have shown that higher amounts of maladjustment
among children and adolescents is positively associated
with higher amounts of harsh, negative, and inconsistent


parenting (Maccoby & Martin, 1983; Patterson, Reid, &

Dishion, 1992; Rothbaum & Weisz, 1994). Authoritative
parenting (warm and involved with moderate amounts of
control) has been linked to the most positive outcomes in
the cognitive and social-emotional domains of development (Baumrind, 1993). The processes linking warm parenting that includes moderate levels of control, to positive
adjustment for the child is through the childs internalization of social rules (Kochanska, 1994) and, more generally,
through the childs feelings of being loved and accepted
by his or her parents (Rohner, 1986). Accordingly, parenting that is harsh and cold decreases the likelihood that the
child will sufficiently internalize rules of conduct and is
likely to lead to feelings ofrejection. Harsh, inept, parentcentered behavior provides many opportunities for children to learn aggressive approaches to social relationships
through operant conditioning and modeling (Dodge et
al., 1990; Patterson et al., 1992).
It is important to make a distinction between the more
general domains of parenting, such as warmth, negativity,
or control, and specific parenting behaviors such as using
reasoning or spanking. There is evidence that the correlates of these specific parenting behaviors may be culturally bound, perhaps due to cultural group differences in
the values that are placed on these parenting behaviors. The use of physical discipline, for instance, has
been shown to be unrelated to externalizing, aggressive
behavior among Afiican-American children but to be
positively correlated with such behavior problems among
European-American children (Deater-Deckard, Dodge,
Bates, & Pettit, 1996). Similarly, the specific behaviors
found among authoritative parents (eg., encouraging
achievement, using reasoning) may not be related to
achievement motivation and academic success in the same
ways for ethnic majority and minority children and adolescents (Basic Behavioral Science Task Force of the
National Advisory Mental Health Council, 1996).
There appears to be initial evidence for meaningful
cultural group differences in parenting norms that influence what a child construes from his or her parents
behaviors. According to this view, it is the meaning that
a chlld applies to physical discipline, for example, that is
important in the influences that such parenting behavior
has on the child (Deater-Deckard & Dodge, 1997). If a
child views this behavior as harsh and rejecting, then it is
more likely to have negative consequences for the child;

V 5 N3, FALL 1998


alternately, if the child does not view it in this way, the

effects will be different. There is some research showing
that childrensviews of parental behavior mediate the links
between parenting and child adjustment, with feelings of
rejection forming the critically important mediation
between parent and child behavior (Rohner, Kean, &
Cournoyer, 1991). A skeptic could argue that these findings are an artifact, whereby the most common measures
of positive and harsh parenting are based on European middle-class views (Kelley, Power, & Wimbush,
1992), or that there are not any meaningful cultural group
differences within the United States in the processes linking parenting and child behavior (Rowe, Vazsonyi, &
Flannery, 1994). More research that focuses on childrens
perceptions of parenting behavior is needed before clear
conclusions can be made.
Hypothesis 3: Parenting Behavior Mediates the Link Between
Stress and Child Adjustment

An implicit assumption of most of the research on parenting and child development is that parenting behavior is a
proximal mediator of more distal stressors, such as social
and economic disadvantage (Dodge et al., 1994) and
parental conflict (Emery, 1982).
Despite the assumption that parenting behavior mediates the relation between parenting stress and child adjustment, there has been surprisingly little research that has
explicitly tested this mediation hypothesis. One large
study of dual-earner couples with young children showed
support for the hypothesis (Deater-Deckard & Scarr,
1996), with higher amounts ofparenting stress being correlated with more authoritarian parental mscipline behavior, which was in turn correlated with more behavior
problems among children. Another recent study also
found evidence for this hypothesis (Conger et al., 1995),
although the measure of parenting stress in this study was
based on life events and not a measure of psychological
distress in the parenting role.
It seems likely that this hypothesis is sound given the
evidence for the mediating role of parenting behavior in
research on at risk groups of parents. For example, the
impact of depression in mothers on childrens adjustment
has been shown to be mediated, in part, through maternal
behavior, with depressed mothers showing less responsive
and involved parenting behavior (Downey & Coyne,
1990). However, this third hypothesis-that



behavior is the critical proximal process linking parenting

stress and child adjustment-still
requires rigorous

The emphasis in research on parenting stress to date has

been almost exclusively on group differences (e.g., parents
with and without behaviorally disordered children) and
individual differences in parenting stress and behavior.
The focus has been on variation betweenjzmilies, at the
expense of considering variation witkinfamilies and withiti
individuals, both of which may be critically important to
our understanding of the parenting stress reaction and its
links to parent and child adjustment.
Variation Within Families: Are There Child Effects and Genetic

Because we spend most of our first two decades of life in

the direct care and supervision of parents, the role of
parental behavior in healthy and maladaptive cognitive,
social, and emotional development has been a central
focus of our theories. There is no doubt, based on the vast
literature, that patterns of parent-child interaction are
familial (i.e., are more similar within than between families) and are transmitted fi-om one generation to the next.
Characteristics of the grandparent generation (including
personality and psychopathology, parenting stress, and
child management techniques) and family circumstances
(e.g., social class, life events) are correlated with the same
factors in the parent generation. Most theorists have
focused on environmental transmission through socialization (i.e., learning) processes (Baumrind, 1993), although
it is now clear that genetic transmission of behavior from
one generation to the next is critically important (Plomin,
1994; Scarr, 1992, 1993).
The three hypotheses highlighted above make explicit
the causal mechanisms linking parenting stress, parenting
behavior, and child adjustment. However, one testable
alternative is that the individuals current psychosocial
adjustment (i.e., personality and psychopathology) is a
common cause of both parenting stress and parenting
behavior, and through genetic transmission, child adjustment. Parenting stress and parenting behavior may or may
not be important mediators ofthe relation between parent
adjustment and child adjustment. Instead, according to


this view, the similarity in the psychological adjustment

of parents and their offspring may be due to the genetic
similarity of parents and their offspring (see Scarr, 1992,
Quantitative genetic studies of normal and abnormal
behavior have demonstrated that for most aspects of normal and abnormal behavior, genetic factors are present
and account for about half of the variance, on average
(McGuffin, Owen, ODonova, Thapar, & Gottesman,
1994; Plomin, 1994). More important, family environments-including parental behavior-are also genetically
influenced (Plomin, Hetherington. Reiss, & Howe,
1994), so the correlations found between indicators of
parenting stress, parenting behavior, and child behavior
may be due to common genes. For example, although
parental negativity and adolescent depressive symptoms
have been shown to be correlated in phenotypic studes,
genetic factors appear to mediate the negativitydepression correlation, whereby genetic factors for adolescent depressive symptoms may also be in part responsible for parental negativity (Pike, McGuire, Reiss,
Hetherington, & Plomin, 1996). Similarly, Fischer (1990)
has suggested that the elevation in parenting stress found
among parents of children diagnosed with attention
deficit-hyperactivity disorder may be due to genetic
covariance between parenting stress and child behavior.
This shared genetic covariance between parenting and
child adjustment is actually not too surprising, given what
we already know about the role of individual differences
in chldrens attributes on parental behavior-commonly
referred to as child eflects. To this end, Abidin (1983) has
made the very important distinction between parent
domain and child domain parenting stress, to distinguish between aspects of parenting stress that are specific
to parental attributes (i.e., personality and psychopathology) and child attributes. In general, the severity of symptoms of child illness, behavioral problems, or emotional
disturbance is more strongly related to the child domain
of parenting stress, and individual differences in parental
adjustment and stressful life events appear to be more
closely linked to the parent domain of parenting stress
(Bendell, Stone, Field, & Goldstein, 1989; Boyce, Behl,
Mortensen, & Akers, 1991; Eyberg, Boggs, & Rodriguez, 1992).
Research that has explored the covariation of child
domain parenting stress and child adjustment has shown a
link between the two. It is clear that higher amounts of


parenting stress are found among parents of children who

are showing early signs of psychopathology. Most affected
are parents of children with externalizing behavioral
problems, such as conduct disorder and attention deficithyperactivity disorder (Anastopouloset al., 1992; Baker &
McCal, 1995; Breen & Barkley, 1988; Campbell, 1994;
Creasey & Jarvis, 1994; Creasey & Reese, 1996; Donenberg & Baker, 1993; Dumas, Wold Fisman, & Culligan,
1991; Fischer, 1990; Forehand, Furey, & McMahon,
1984; Mash &Johnston, 1983). Parenting stress is also
higher for parents of children with more difficult temperaments (and especially if the mother is depressed; Beebe,
Casey, & Pinto-Martin, 1993; Gelfand et al., 1992), autistic children (Dumas et al., 1991; Hoppes & Hams, 1990),
and children with physical disabilities (Beckman, 1991;
Dyson, 1993; Dyson, Edgar, & Crnic, 1989). Similarly,
parenting stress is higher among parents of children with
congenital diseases like cystic fibrosis and heart disease
(Crist et al., 1994; Darke & Goldberg, 1994; Goldberg et
al., 1990; Hauenstein, 1990; Quittner, DiGirolamo,
Michel, & Eigen, 1992), respiratory illnesses such as
asthma (Carson & Schauer, 1992; but see also Phipps &
Drotar, 1990), and developmental delay and cognitive
impairment (Fuller & Rankin, 1994; Innocenti, Huh, &
Boyce, 1992; On; Cameron, Dobson, & Day, 1993; Pearson & Chan, 1993; Singer, Song, Hill, & Jaffe, 1991).
Although there have been no life-span studies ofparenting
stress, it is likely that if the childs behavioral or health
problems are chronic or persistent (e.g., physical disabilities, mental retardation), there will be a cumulative effect
of parenting stress over the entire life course for the parent. For such parents, high levels of parenting stress are
probably not transient. A handful of studies with different
samples have demonstrated that individual differences in
parenting stress are highly stable over time (see Abidin,
1990; Deater-Deckard, Pinkerton, & Scarr, 1996; Dyson,
1993). However, far more longitudinal studies of this kind
are needed before any conclusions can be made regarding
the cumulative nature of parenting stress effects.
There are two important caveats to this general finding, however. First, unlike other aspects of child development, sensory and communication impairment have not
been conclusively linked to parenting stress (Chaffee et al.,
1991; Hanson & Hanline, 1990; Meadow-Orlans, 1994).
Second, the impact of child problems in adjustment or
health on parenting stress may be mediated by the parents
attitudes about the social stigma of having a child with

V5 N3, FALL 1998


health or behavioral problems. For example, among parents of children with disabilities, parenting stress is higher
among those parents who feel stigmatized by the childs
disability (Baxter, 1989).
Thus, child attributes contribute to parenting stress in
very important ways. Because stress in the parenting role
is associated with the quality of the parent-child relationship, understanding those child-based factors that contribute to higher amounts of stress for the parent is crucial to
elucidating the processes linking parent and child behavior. Although most of the research on family socialization
has emphasized the effects ofparenting behavior and affect
on children, it is of paramount importance to address the
inherent bidirectionality of parent-child interactions; parent and child behaviors can be viewed as actions as well
as reactions (Bell & Chapman, 1986; Sameroff, 1975).
There is empirical evidence for child effects on parental
behavior (see Bell & Harper, 1977; Maccoby & Martin,
1983). Researchers have found that effective parents are
sensitive to their childrens responses to earlier parental
behavior. An example of this is the establishment of reciprocal dyadic interaction between a mother and her newborn (Cohn & Tronick, 1988), whereby well-functioning
mother-infant dyads are characterized by maternal
responsiveness to cues from the infant, and vice versa
(Lester, Hoffman, & Brazelton, 1985). In laboratory
research, childrens dependence and activity levels have
been shown to predict more directive parental behavior,
and a childs attentiveness to an adult has been linked to
the adults positive attention toward that child (Bell &
Chapman, 1986). Research on oppositional behavior
among conduct-disordered boys has demonstrated that
these children may be driving the negative interactions
with their parents (Anderson, Lytton, & Romney, 1986).
There is also evidence that parents react differently to
the behavior of boys and girls (Lytton & Romney, 1991;
Maccoby & Martin, 1983).
These child effects may become more pronounced
over time, because children develop greater self-control
and awareness as they mature cognitively and emotionally
(Maccoby, 1984). Maccoby notes that the parent-child
dyad enters a period of co-regulation from early childhood to puberty, when child autonomy increases dramatically. As children grow older, parents use less physical
punishment and more reasoning and contractual discipline, largely in response to the childrens changing competencies (Kuczynski, Kochanska, Radke-Yarrow, &



Girnius-Brown, 1987). As they mature, children also

become more selective in those environments and experiselect their
ences to which they are exposed-they
friends, hobbies, and interests and do so in a way that is
consistent with their existing characteristics (Scarr &
McCartney, 1983).
Thus, parenting stress may include a child-based and
a parent-based component-that is, two correlated but
qualitatively distinct domains of stress that are differentially related to parent and child adjustment, but that are
both essential components of the parenting stress reaction.
Because individual differences in child behavior plays an
important role in the development of parenting stress,
future research should consider not only those observable
child and parent effects in parent-child transactions but
should also consider the underlying genetic and environmental factors that mediate these phenotypic correlations
between parenting stress, parenting behavior, and child
Variation Within Parent Dyads: Are Dads Stressed Too?

Remarkable changes in the social and instrumental roles

of men and women in the past century have led to an
increased emphasis on shared care-giving, as well as shared
breadwinning (Lamb, 1987; Russell, 1986). However, the
sea change in attitudes has not always amounted to comparable shifts in mens behaviors, that is, their involvement
in the day-to-day tasks of care-giving. Like their male
ancestors, todays Western fathers still interact less frequently with their children than do mothers, and men
usually do not hold primary responsibility for the care of
children, even in those families where both parents have
full-time jobs outside of the home (Scarr, Phillips, &
McCartney, 1990). However, it is noteworthy that there
is considerable variation in the degree of paternal involvement in daily care-giving-perhaps
greater variability
than in past eras. Greater involvement is found for fathers
who have more flexible sex-role orientations, who are
happier in their jobs, and who have positive relationships
with their own fathers (Grossman, Pollack, & Golding,
1988; Levy-Shiff & Israelashvili, 1988; Radin & HaroldGoldsmith, 1989; Volling & Belsky, 1991).
Despite this robust gender difference in care-giving,
parent gender is only modestly related to levels of parenting stress, with mothers reporting slightly higher levels of
stress than fathers in some, but not all, studies. Several
studies, some of high-risk groups of parents of chronically


ill children or children with behavior problems, have

shown that mothers and fathers are more similar than
different in their mean levels of stress and anxiety in the
parenting role (Baker, 1994; Creasey & Reese, 1996;
Deater-Deckard et al., 1994; Deater-Deckard & Scarr,
1996; Krauss, 1993; Perry, Sarlo-McGarvey, & Factor,
1992; but see Beckman, 1991).
This gender similarity in levels of parenting stress raises
the interesting possibility that, within any family, it is
difficult to predict whether the mother or the father will
be more or less stressed than the other. Studies that have
measured parenting stress in both parents have shown that
partners levels of parenting stress are correlated (DeaterDeckard & Scarr, 1996). Therefore, although there may
not be gender differences in the levels of parenting stress
within a population, mothers and fathers are somewhat
similar in their levels of parenting stress within eachfamily.
An important caveat is that whether the mother or
father has more parenting stress may depend on who you
ask. In one study of parenting-related anxieties (DeaterDeckard et al., 1994), fathers perceptions of their partners anxieties were strongly correlated with perceptions
of their own anxieties, and not their partners selfreported anxieties. In addition, these fathers invariably
rated their partners as being more anxious than themselves, a mean difference that was not found in their partners self-reported anxieties.
Although the levels of parenting stress may not differ
very much for women and men, the correlates may be
quite different. Noppe, Noppe, and Hughes (1991) conducted a short longitudinal study following a small sample
of expectant couples through the transition to parenthood. The quality of the observed parent-child interactions was highly predictable for the fathers, based largely
on their antenatal expectations of stress and lack of power
in-the parenting role; in contrast, little prediction was
found for the mothers. Several studies of the parents of
disabled children have also shown that parent gender
moderates the covariation of parenting stress and attributes of the childs disablements (e.g., type of disability,
severity; Frey et al., 1989; Krauss, 1993; Margalit, Shulman, & Stuchiner, 1989). However, several studies have
reported very few gender differences in the covariation of
parenting stress and parenting-related anxieties, parental
adjustment and behavior, and child adjustment (DeaterDeckard & Scarr, 1996; Deater-Deckard et al., 1994;
Lavee et al., 1996).


This raises the possibility that gender differences in the

levels and correlates of parenting stress emerge only
within certain family contexts, for instance, in those families where there is chronic stress and adversity. That is, the
covariation of parental stress, behavior, and child behavior
may vary for different types of parents, children, and families. There is some evidence for this based on research on
gender effects and marital happiness. Because the quality
of the marital relationship is of paramount importance to
the psychological health of married men and women
(Goldberg, 1993), it is not surprising that marital disharmony and conflict are closely linked to a disruption in parenting behavior (Belsky, Rovine, & Fish, 1989; Emery,
1982). There is an indication that unhappily married men
may withdraw or become more harsh and negative, such
that the links between parental stress and behavior, and in
turn child behavior problems, are increased. In contrast,
an unhappy marriage for women may predict a compensatory process, whereby the links between parental
stress and negative parenting become weaker (DeaterDeckard & Scarr, 1996; Gable, Belsky, & Crnic, 1992).
Womens parenting stress may be more strongly related to
attributes of the child or children, whereas mens parenting stress may be most strongly related to satisfaction in
the marital relationship (Stoneman, Brody, & Burke,
What might explain gender differences in the effects of
marital happiness on the links between parenting stress
and behavior? Barnett and Baruch (1987) specift two
competing hypotheses. The social role hypothesis is that
sex differences in parenting stress and behavior are due to
socialization pressures from an early age. Accordingly,
men and women who are more similar in their work and
family roles (including involvement in household tasks,
care-giving, and breadwinning) will appear to be more
similar in parenting stress and behavior. The alternate sex
role hypothesis is that gender differences are biological in
nature, with gender (and not gender-role or sex-role orientation, i.e., masculinity/femininity) explaining the
differences found in mens and womens parenting stress
and behavior. There are known gender differences in the
physiological indicators of the stress reaction (see Polefrone & Manuck, 1987), although these sex differences
in physiological indicators may be explained, in part, by
individual differences in sex-role orientation and gender
stereotyped behaviors (see Frankenhaeuser, 1991). Future
research on parenting stress must take sex-role orientation

V 5 N 3 , FALL 1998


and gender into account when considering such sex

group differences.
Variation Within the individual: Is Parenting Stress Child
Specific in Multiple-SiblingFamilies?

As described above, the impact of the parents perceptions

of a childs noxious behaviors is a critically important
aspect of parenting stress. However, most parents have
more than one child. This raises the possibility of variations in parenting stress within the individual parent,
whereby higher parenting stress is child specific within
the family.
Even though most siblings are reared in the same
home, neighborhood, and school environments, siblings
are quite different from one another, and these differences
in behavior translate into differences in parent-child relationships within families (Dunn & McGuire, 1994;
Plomin & Daniels, 1987). Thus, the quality of parenting and the parent-child relationship is not determined by
the characteristics of the parent or the child alone. However, it is feasible to test whether certain aspects of sibling
differences, for instance, sibling differences in behavior
problems (Deater-Deckard. 1996) or in cognitive impairment (Baxter, Cummins, & Polak, 1995), are related to
parenting stress and behavior, using correlational data.
Whether these sibling differences are an important causal
factor in producing differences in parenting stress within
the parent requires longitudinal and, ideally, experimental designs.
If the child domain of parenting stress is truly child
specific within f a d i e s , then parents of sibling children
should report different levels of child domain parenting
stress, and these different levels should correspond to levels of noxious behaviors in the sibling children, with the
more difficult child being perceived as the source of
greater amounts of parenting stress. In a recent sibling
study (Deater-Deckard. 1996), parents perceptions of
their sibling childrens externalizing behaviors (e.g.,
aggression, conduct problems) were correlated with parents feelings of negativity (measured by the DystLnctional Relationship scale on the Parenting Stress
Index-Short Form; Abidin, 1990). More importantly,
parental negativity covaried with siblings behavior problems wichinfamilies, such that the child who was perceived
as being more difficult was also reported to generate
greater feelings of negativity in the parent. In another
recent study of cognitively impaired children and their


nonimpaired younger siblings (Baxter et al., 1995), parenting stress was linked to impairment. Thus, at least in
those families where there are sibling children, parenting
stress can not be thought of in the same way as adult
psychopathology or personality. That is, there may be
differences in parenting stress within each parent that are
linked to sibling differences (and, more specifically, the
parents perceptions of these sibling differences) within
the family.

Future research on parenting stress, its antecedents, and

its consequences will hopefilly focus on describing those
processes that link adult and child psychosocial adjustment. To this aim, four specific directions for future
research are suggested. Ideally, all of this research will
include longitudinal assessments and multivariate measurement.

The first issue to be addressed-and perhaps the most

critical one-regards the measurement of parenting stress.
Specifically, there is a need for research that focuses on
deriving measures that discriminate pervasive emotional
states and aspects of adult personality (eg., depressed
mood, neuroticism, and emotional lability) from stress
reactions to the demands of parenting. Although there is
probably already adequate support for the face v a l i d q and
external validity of commonly used measures of parenting
stress, it is not yet clear whether these measures have discriminant and convergent validity (Deater-Deckard &
Scarr, 1996). For instance, as reviewed here, depressive
symptoms and parenting stress covary. However, it is possible that this covariation is a by-product of the way in
which parenting stress is usually measured (self-report
questionnaires). One approach to addressing this issue is
to measure parenting stress within the same study in
different ways, for instance, using both questionnaire and
interview measures, as well as incorporating observational
methods and approaching the construct of parenting stress
from different sides, for example, asking parents to report
both their general feelings about stress in the parenting
role and their specific concerns about the day-to-day hassles that they face as parents.
Another potentially fruitful approach to establishing
the validity of our measures of parenting stress is t o
develop multivariate measurement approaches that dis-


criminate between stress reactions in different domains of

life, for instance, reactions to stress arising from the
demands of romantic and family relationships, from work,
and from parenting. Although there are existing measures
of these various domains of stress, they are rarely compared within the same study, and even then, the discriminant and convergent validity of the measures is not usually
tested. There is a need for research that measures stress in
various domains, using various methods (e.g., interviews
and questionnaires), so that these concerns about validity
can be addressed. This issue is of paramount importance
because we can not be entirely confident about the role
of parenting stress in those social and cognitive processes
that link adult and child adjustment until we are certain
that our measures of parenting stress are not merely proxy
measures of depressive symptoms or neurotic personality
Incorporating Cognition

A second area of research involves the incorporation of

multiple stages represented in a general theory ofthe stress
reaction (Lazarus, 1993). We need more research that
assesses parents appraisals of their childrens behaviors and
needs, the parents coping mechanisms, and the parenting
stress reaction, all within the same study and ideally using
a prospective longitudinal design, so that the processes
linking these aspects of the stress reaction can be
described. In addition to the survey research that is conducted in this area, studies could also incorporate experimental designs where adults are exposed to infants or
children for varying lengths of time in different contexts.
This research could focus on specific attributes of children
(e.g., infant crying, or comparing clinically disordered
groups of children to matched control groups) or adults
(parity, personality, and psychopathology).
One example of such a paradigm is provided by Anderson et al. (1986). In this laboratory study, conductdisordered boys were observed interacting with the mothers of nondisordered boys, and nondisordered boys were
observed interacting with the mothers of conductdisordered boys. In a replication of t h s design, a
researcher could include measures of parenting stress,
coping mechanisms, attributions, and psychosocial adjustment among the mothers, to explore the impact of exposure to a behaviorally difficult child on mothers of
nondisordered children. Such studies would not only


inform us about the role of parent and child effects in the

etiology of conduct problems, but would also inform us
about the impact of exposure to noxious child behavior
on adults parenting-related stress.
These and other experimental designs could be applied
to any number of child or parent characteristics that are
already known to be associated with parenting stress and
behavior. An example is provided by Stasiewicz and Lisman (1989). They measured alcohol consumption patterns and child abuse potential in a sample of nonparent
undergraduate males, and then placed the men into low
or high abuse potential groups. These two groups of men
were then randomly assigned to hear either an infant cry
or a smoke alarm. Blood pressure and subjective ratings of
the noxiousness of the sound were measured afier each
presentation, and the participants also completed a taste
test involving alcohol. All of the men who were exposed
to the infant cry (regardless oftheir abuse potentials) drank
more alcohol, reported greater arousal, and rated the
infant cry as being more aversive, compared to those
exposed to the smoke alarm. It is feasible to apply these
kinds of creative experimental designs to other samples of
adults (parents and nonparents alike) and to incorporate
other relevant stimuli such as aversive child behavior
(e.g., hyperactivity).
Links Between Normal and Abnormal Levels of Parenting Stress

A third important issue requiring further research is the

exploration of the common and unique aspects of normal
and more extreme parenting stress. Although domains of
parenting are ofien thought of categorically (e.g., dysfunctional, authoritarian), parenting stress and behaviors
vary along continua in populations. An important question for future research is whether there are identifiable
and meaningful extreme groups along the continuum of
parenting stress, for instance, parents who do not experience any parenting stress, and those who are not able to
function because of extremely high levels of parenting
stress, and whether there are group differences in the
structure and finctioning of parenting stress. One
hypothesis is that parenting stress, and the processes linking the stress reaction to parenting behavior and adjustment and child adjustment, are similar across the full range
of the parenting stress continuum. The alternate hypothesis is that the level of parenting stress may moderate the
relations between parenting stress and parenting behavior,

V 5 N 3 , FALL 1998


child behavior, and family functioning, such that the links

between parenting stress and parent and child adjustment
are different for those parents in the normal range compared to those parents with more extreme levels of stress.
Although it is possible to compare findings from the
ofien separate literatures on clinically referred and
community-based samples of parents, it is very important
that in the future researchers attempt to assess the full
range of parenting stress and behavior within the same
sampling framework so that more direct comparisons can
be made between parenting stress in the normal and more
extreme ranges. Having genetically sensitive designs
would prove to be most useful here, given that such a
design would allow for the comparison of the genetic and
environmental etiology of individual differences in the
full range ofparenting stress, and the comparison between
individual differences and selected extreme group differences. Similar etiologies for parenting stress in the full
range and the more extreme ranges would indicate that
similar processes are probably operating across the entire
continuum of parenting stress. In contrast, different findings for the unselected sample and extreme group would
indicate that there may be important differences in the
processes related to parenting stress in the normal and
extreme ranges. Such research requires large samples
using genetically sensitive designs, given that the selection
of extreme groups results in small samples relative to the
full unselected sample.
A related issue with respect to comparing categorical
and continuous approaches is the inclusion of continuous
measures of gender (e.g., sex-role orientation and flexibility, sex-role beliefs) in studies of sex differences in parenting stress. Although in general mothers and fathers
report similar levels of parenting stress, it is possible that
individual differences in masculinity, femininity, and sexrole attitudes covary with parenting stress. For example,
although women generally report higher amounts of
depressive symptoms than do men (Weissman & Klerman,
1977), masculinity has been linked to lower levels of
depressive symptoms in both men and women (Waelde,
Silvern, & Hodges, 1994). Another study ofpsychological
&stress associated with infertility treatment found that
sex-role identification was more strongly related to stress
than was gender per se (Berg, Wilson, & Weingartner,
1991), with masculinity again showing a protective effect
for both men and women. Inclusion of gender-related



measures wdl allow us to explore further those individual

differences in parenting stress within sex groups and may
lead to important discoveries that are masked by a categorical sex differences approach.
Phenotypes and Genotypes: Genetic Research Informs Us About
Famlly Processes

The fourth and final suggestion is that all scientists should

take seriously the inclusion of genetically sensitive designs
in their research on parenting stress and child adjustment.
We know that there are individual differences in parenting
stress and that parenting stress covaries with individual
differences in parent and child adjustment. Genetic variation may contribute significantly to these individual
diff-erences in parenting stress and may also mediate the
covariation of parenting stress and parent and child adjustment. In addition, by including genetic similarity as a
variable in these studies, we will be able to answer important questions about the ways in which nongenetic environmental processes operate (Plomin, 1994).
There are several types of quantitative genetic designs
that can be used to this end. All of these designs are based
on the simple principle that estimates of genetic and nongenetic variance and covariance can be ascertained by
comparing groups ofpaired individuals (adult o r child siblings, or parents and their children) who are known to
differ in their genetic similarity ( e g , twin and adoption
designs). These designs are worthwhile because they provide answers to questions about phenotypic aspects ofparenting stress, as well as answers regarding the genetic and
environmental etiology of individual differences in parenting stress and parent and child adjustment. Specifically,
with genetically sensitive data, a researcher can not only
test theories about the covariation of parenting stress and
parental discipline, for example, but could also test
whether there are both genetic and nongenetic factors
contributing to the covariation of these two domains of
One very useful quantitative genetic design that has
been underutilized is the adult twin parent design, where
identical and fraternal adult twins who are also parents are
compared on measures of parenting. This design has the
added advantage of allowing comparisons of the twins
children (e.g., children of identical twin mothers are cousins in terms of family structure but are genetic halfsiblings), in addition to the direct genetic and environ-


mental variance estimates of the adult twins parenting

measures. Kendler (1996) used this design to demonstrate
that parental affect (i.e., warmth) was substantially heritable but that parental control (i.e., authoritarianism) was
due to nongenetic, f a d y environment factors, a replication of findings fiom chdd twin and nontwin sibling studies (Deater-Deckard, 1996). Quantitative genetic designs
like these that incorporate twin and adoption methodologies using both child and adult siblings will be critically
important to furthering our understanding of individual
differences in parenting stress.


To summarize, there are three main points to be made

regarding the structure of parenting stress and its role in
adult, child, and family functioning. Some of these points
are more speculative than others, but all of them ullll
hopehlly raise questions (preferably testable ones), with
implications for clinicians and researchers.
First, parenting stress is clearly linked to adult hnctioning, the quality of parent-child relationships, and child
functioning. Parenting stress is a dstinct domain of stress
and is separable through careful measurement fiom more
general measures of stressful life events and circumstances,
or specific measures of work-related stress and extant psychopathology. Parenting stress is not thought to be the
parent version of adult neuroticism or depression but
is instead a complex and distinct stress reaction to
the demands of parenthood. However, although the
parenting-related aspects of stress can be distinguished in
measurement, the stress reaction to the demands of parenting may or may not be distinct from those stress reactions that are specific to other domains of life.
Second, parenting stress is ubiquitous, given that all
parents-regardless of their own and their childrensattributes, their socioeconomic circumstances, and their support networks-experience parenting stress to some
degree. The fact that parenting stress is a normal consequence of being a parent by no means trivializes it.
Indeed, quite the opposite is true-there are individual
differences in parenting stress, and variation in the normal
as well as extreme ranges of this population distribution
have been linked to adjustment in parents and children
@eater-Deckard & Scam, 1996; Creasey & Reese, 1996).
However, it is not clear that parenting stress in the normal
range is similar to or different fiom parenting stress in the


extreme high range. Consideration of the etiology of normal variants and more extreme, clinically relevant variants
ofparenting stress may provide further insight into the etiology of parenting stress and its role in adult adjustment
and family functioning. Quantitative genetic methods will
prove to be particularly useful in exploring the links
between normal and extreme levels ofparenting stress and
parent functioning (Deater-Deckard, Reiss, Hetherington, & Plomin, 1997), whereby genetic and environmental factors that are either common or unique to normal
and extreme variation can be identified.
Finally, parenting stress varies within families in important and discernible ways. Couples may vary in the degree
to which the mother and father differ in levels of parenting stress. Furthermore, the child domain of parenting
stress may be child specific within families, such that sibling differences in adjustment may be intimately linked to
intra-individual variation in parenting stress. This covariation between parenting stress and sibling adjustment, as
well as parenting stress and adult adjustment, may be
genetically mediated such that the observed correlations
between parenting stress, parental behavior, and child
adjustment may be explained, in part, by shared genetic
and environmental variation. More generally, the exploration of between-family, within-family, and withinindividual sources of variation will provide useful answers
to remaining questions about the nature ofparenting stress
and the processes that link parenting stress to parents and
childrens health and happiness.

I thank Judy DUM. Alison Pike, Thalia Eley, Stephen A. Petrill,

and Keirsten Deater-Deckard, who provided valuable feedback
on earlier drafts of the manuscript. I also owe thanks to Anna
Deater-Deckard, who in her five young months has already
taught me valuable lessons about the joys and stresses of parenting.

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