Economic Hardship, Family Relationships, and Adolescent Distress: An Evaluation of a Stress-Distress Mediation Model in Mother-Daughter and Mother-Son Dyads

Article excerpt

Much research has shown that economic hardship is associated with distress in men, women, and children (McLoyd & Flanagan, 1990). Recent studies have gone beyond merely documenting the existence of associations between economic hardship and negative outcomes into investigating possible processes or mechanisms that link economic hardship with anxiety, depression, and other distress symptoms (Clark-Lempers, Lempers, & Netusil, 1990; Conger et al., 1992, 1993; Lempers & Clark-Lempers, 1990; Lempers, Clark-Lempers, & Simons, 1989).

Much of this process-oriented research has focused on how economic hardship is appraised and on intra-family relationships as important intervening variables in the link between economic hardship and physical and psychological distress. Lazarus and his associates (Lazarus, 1991, 1993; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) have theoretically elaborated and empirically documented the role of appraisal processes in the stress, coping, and distress relationship. With respect to economic hardship specifically, several recent studies point out that differences in how objective economic conditions are perceived account for variations in resulting distress (Conger et al., 1992, 1993; Lempers et al., 1989).

The two intra-family relationships that have received the most attention from researchers interested in documenting the effects of economic hardship on families are the parent-child relationship and the marital relationship. An abundance of research has documented the overall importance of the parent-child relationship for the child's development (Baumrind, 1971; Belsky, 1984; 1990; Maccoby & Martin, 1983).

Recent studies on the impact of economic hardship on children have demonstrated that some of the negative effects are mediated through changes in the parent-child relationship. Elder, Van Nguyen, and Caspi (1985) found that economic hardship increased children's socioemotional distress by increasing punitive and arbitrary parenting behaviors, especially of the father. Harold-Goldsmith, Radin, and Eccles (1988) found that, although unemployed fathers had more time for child care, they displayed fewer nurturing behaviors than did other fathers. Lempers et al. (1989) observed that under economic hardship, parental nurturance decreased and inconsistent discipline increased. Conger et al. (1992, 1993) showed that economic pressure had an effect on adolescent adjustment by increasing parents' depression, which was associated with less involved parenting. Findings by Galambmos and Silbereisen (1987), Flanagan, 1988), and Larson (1984) all have indicated that parents facing economic hardship felt more depressed about the future of their children, felt less competent in helping their children choose future careers, tended to lower their expectations for their children's education, and were less likely to encourage them to finish college. These lowered parental expectations were associated with decreased academic aspirations in the children, who expected to undergo vocational training instead of attending a four-year college (Isralowitz & Singer, 1986; McLoyd, 1990). Flanagan (1990) showed that adolescents in families experiencing job loss reported more conflict with their parents.

In the current study, depression and loneliness were selected as indicators of adolescent distress because of the previously documented effects of economic hardship on the parents and the parent-child relationship. Parents who, because of financial pressure, become more depressed, more irritable, and/or more self-preoccupied might be less nurturant and supportive in their daily interactions with their children, and perhaps more distant, uninvolved, and rejecting on a daily basis (Maccoby & Martin, 1983; Patterson, 1982). These stress-induced parental moods and behaviors, and the resulting negative parent-child interactions, may be related to their children feeling depressed, less wanted, and more lonely. …