Recent research shows that parental work stress has some effects on family relationships and the psychology of children and adolescents. The impact of parental work stress on children and adolescents is indirect. Work stress causes parents to feel overburdened and stressed.
This leads to more conflict between parent and child, less compatibility and therefore less positive psychological adaptation of children and adolescents. Too much work stress and not being able to have a family environment for a certain period of time may not be a problem, but it becomes a problem in the long run.
The strength of this link between parental work stress and the psychology of children and adolescents can vary depending on the personality traits of the parents, their ability to cope with this situation, and their work and family environment.
From the 1930s to the 1980s, developmental psychologists were preoccupied with the question of whether having a working mother posed a problem for the child. Researchers focused only on the mother’s work, ignoring both the mother’s and father’s working status and how it affected the family.
About 15 years ago, there was a change in this thinking. Along with the impact of the mother’s work status on the family, researchers began to look at the role of the father in the family and the impact of the mother’s and father’s work status on the children. Some of these studies focused on parents’ experiences of stress at work.
These studies asked the questions “does parental work stress make a difference in the adaptation of children and adolescents?” and “how does this work?”.
There are two different and at the same time complementary ways of studying the impact of work stress on families and children: first, studies based on a global assessment of parental work stress, family dynamics and psychological functioning of the child or adolescent, and second, studies focusing on the impact of individuals’ stressful work experiences, which vary from day to day, on family interactions.
Here, our primary focus will be on studies in the global tradition, as they examine the relationship between parental work stress and psychological adaptation in children and adolescents. In this section, we will present research findings from both traditions and discuss individual characteristics and cortex-based conditions that we believe influence this relationship.
Global Assessments of Parents’ Work Stress
Parental work stress does not appear to have a direct impact on children’s psychological functioning. Rather, there is a sequential effect of the “parent’s” work experiences, work-related emotions and child-rearing, and this is how children’s behavior is indirectly affected by parental work stress.
For example, in a study of two Canadian working parents and their adolescent children, Galambos, Sears, Almeida, and Kolaric (1995) tested a 3-step model of parental job stress and adolescents. The first step was related to parents’ job stress (e.g., working long hours, feeling overburdened) and their general feelings of stress. The second step examined the relationship between general feelings of stress and the relationship between these parents and their adolescent children (including warmth and conflict in the relationship).
The last step dealt with the parent-adolescent relationship and the problematic behavior of the adolescents. According to the study, the mothers’ heavy workload caused them to show less warmth towards their adolescent children. When mothers were less warm and accepting, adolescents showed more problematic behaviors. In the parent-adolescent relationship, except that there is no relationship between fathers’ work stress and adolescents’ problematic behaviors, the other relationships are the same as in the mother-adolescent relationship. For example, father-adolescent conflict.
A recent study (Crouter, Bumpus, Maguire, & McHale, 1999) examined similar relationships but analyzed data collected from mothers and fathers simultaneously. In this study, in addition to the effect of work pressure on parents, the effect of one parent’s work pressure on the other parent was also examined.
There are some hints in the literature that women are highly susceptible to be sensitive to their husbands’ work stresses, even though their husbands do not respond to them in this way. In addition, job stress predicted that mothers would feel overburdened by too much work.
These feelings are associated with high levels of mother-adolescent conflict, and high levels of mother-adolescent work lead to low levels of psychological adjustment in adolescents.
For husbands, work pressure is limited to feeling under heavy workload and they project their feelings of workload onto their wives. But women’s workload only makes them feel burdened, so it does not reflect on their husbands.
So why are women more sensitive to their husbands’ work stress than their husbands are to them? One answer is that husbands often work longer hours than their wives and have few other experiences to alleviate their feelings about work. Another answer is that even if the spouses work the same amount of time, the husband earns more money and is seen as the main breadwinner, so his work environment is more prominent in the family.
Women, on the contrary, are more involved in housework and childcare and cannot focus as much on the exhaustion of work. Another explanation focuses on the physiological differences between men and women in their attitude to stress. According to Gottman and Levenson’s (1986) theory, “men show a larger automatic nervous system in response to stress, respond more readily and recover more slowly than women. This causes men to perpetuate stress at home more and their wives are more likely to notice and react to it.
Individual Changes in Work Stress
Studies focusing on individuals’ changes in daily work stress have enabled researchers to better understand the work-family process. In these studies, individuals, couples or families were observed over a period of days to understand how daily changes in work stress affect subsequent family interactions. In these studies, job stress was usually measured in terms of workload.
A study by Repetti (1989) is one of them. In this study of the effects of daily stress, Repetti examined air traffic controllers in terms of workload and collected two types of data from them: How stressful a day they had, daily reports based on objective data about air traffic control and, related to these data, a daily report on husband-wife relationships after work. Repetti found that if women were able to distance themselves from their husbands who had stressful days of air traffic control in the days following these stressful days, then their marital relationship was more positive. With this data, Repetti emphasized that a short-term distancing from the marital relationship is a positive response to very high levels of job stress.
Later, Repetti and Wood (1997) examined the relationship between daily work stress and the relationship between mother and child at the end of the workday. By working with working mothers whose children attended daycare and focusing on the mother-child relationship at the very end of the workday, the researchers were able to rule out any other influences (such as the mother’s mood changing, becoming more positive or negative). The results showed that mothers tended to avoid both negative and positive relationships with their children during stressful workdays. Of course, this avoidance does not always happen. Recent data from a global assessment of work stress, collected in the evenings over 42 days, suggests that when husbands and wives experience a very stressful workday at home and at work, tensions between parent and adolescent increase (Almeida & McDonald, 1998).
What Affects These Relationships?
The factors of work stress that affect employees’ relationships with family members can vary depending on a number of factors. Studies that focus on day-to-day variations in work stress take these into account, but studies in the global tradition do not.
One of the factors influencing the relationship between work stress and children’s and adolescents’ adaptation is the different personality traits and coping styles that parents bring to their work and family life. Some studies show that extreme emotional reactions to daily stressors, including job stress, are associated with high levels of depression and anxiety problems. Similarly, some studies show that the association between daily work stress and less positive mother-child interactions is more likely to be found in mothers who are high in Type A traits (e.g. aggressive, ambitious) than in other mothers.
In addition, coping and stress management styles influence how men and women present their work-related stress. In a study of widowed mothers with adolescent children, it was found that if the mother was able to spend more time alone, she was less likely to project her anxious, distressed moods onto her children (Larson & Gillman, 1999). Spending time alone gives mothers a chance to cope with their negative emotions.
In addition, family and work status significantly influence the relationship between work stress and subsequent family interactions. According to Almeida, Wethington and Chandler (1999), stress at home and at work and tensions between mother and child are stronger for mothers with adolescents and less so for mothers raising younger children. The fact that mothers work full-time is another factor that negatively affects the parent-child relationship compared to mothers who do not work full-time. According to Almeida and colleagues, mothers who do not work full-time find more energy to cope with their own, their children’s and their husbands’ emotional states because they work less hours. Also, full-time jobs are more often seen as the normal role of the father. That is, mothers are often seen as the family’s emotion-management experts.
The studies we reviewed here were conducted with non-experimental designs. So we do not expect a cause-and-effect relationship between work stress, family dynamics and the psychological adaptation of children and adolescents. The two different and complementary styles we mentioned at the beginning, one based on global reports and one based on day-to-day changes in work stress, showed us how this relationship is realized. Jobs that require a lot of effort in terms of time spent, deadlines, pace of progress, negative relationships with coworkers or managers, etc., cause people to feel stressed and overworked.
We found that fathers’ work stress is not only related to their own workload, but also to their partner’s feelings. We learned that parents who feel overburdened by too much work may choose to withdraw from family relationships for a short period of time and isolate themselves. Of course, this is a short-term strategy, but if, in the long term, parents become chronically stressed and try to isolate themselves and stay away from home all the time, this may cause them to be seen as unreachable and too free by other family members and may lead to more negative consequences.
Work is very time consuming and demanding. Parental work stress has an impact on the family, children and adolescents. Therefore, there is much work to be done in future studies.