In the collaborative project, researchers from New York University, Columbia University, Princeton University and Pennsylvania State University’s College of Medicine used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which tracked nearly 5,000 children born in 20 different U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000.
Harsh parenting was measured using the Conflict Tactics Scale based on interviews with mothers, that included questions about shouting, the use of psychological punishments, and corporal punishments such as spanking.
Past studies have indicated that a financial downturn within a family leads to increased stress, which in turn leads to a decline in quality of parenting.
But researchers found that community-wide economic hardship impacts parenting, regardless of an individual family's economic stability.
Contrary to popular belief, harsh parenting is not positively associated with unemployment among the study participants. Rather, harsh parenting was linked to the resident city’s unemployment rate, as well as declines in consumer’s confidence in the economy, as measured by the Consumer Sentiment Index.
The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that the anticipation or fear of losing one's job or economic stability in a recession or economic downturn is more predictive of harsh parenting than actual economic hardship.
But researchers also found that this was only the case for individuals with the “T” allele, a gene which controls production of dopamine. Just over half the mothers in the study possessed the gene, making them more susceptible to their environments.