Relation of Maternal Support and Maternal Stress to Children's Behavior Problems in African American Families

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Chronic parenting stress adversely influences parents and children. Mothers reporting high stress levels are more likely than those with lower stress levels to lack warmth and responsiveness in parent-child interactions; use permissive, harsh and inconsistent discipline; hold unrealistic behavioral expectations of children; and describe children as difficult. Similarly, chronic parenting stress has been linked with negative child outcomes (e.g., insecure attachment, sleep/feeding difficulties, and behavior problems). Few studies include school-aged children and African American families; or examine social support as a potential protective factor that may buffer the impact of parenting stress on child behavior problems. African American families disproportionately face stressors such as poverty and unemployment; yet some parents may function adequately with the support of extended family/kin. This study adopted an ecological/risk-resiliency theoretical framework to investigate the influence of maternal stress and social support on the behavior problems of school-aged, African American children.

Data were from a three-year study funded by the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. Participants were 193 Black/African American females 18 years or older who were primary caregivers of a child age 6 to12; most were low-income. Mothers were administered measures of parenting stress, social support, and child behavior problems. Hierarchical linear regression analyses with interaction effects were used to test hypothesized models examining main effects and social support as a moderator of maternal stress.

With the entire sample, maternal-child dysfunctional interaction was significantly associated with children's total, internalizing, and externalizing behavior problems. Moreover, for female caregivers other than grandmothers, the relationship between maternal-child dysfunctional interaction and children's internalizing behavior problems was attenuated at high levels of formal social support. For grandmothers, informal social support was detrimental to the relationship between maternal-child dysfunctional interaction and children's internalizing behavior problems.

Findings suggested differential intervention strategies are needed. Mothers may need increased formal support to address internalizing behavior problems of children whereas grandmothers may require interventions that focus on strengthening the quality of their sources of informal support that will reduce potential harmful effects. Implications for policy, research, and culturally-appropriate interventions are discussed.