Child Externalizing Behavior and Parents' Stress: The Role of Social Support

By Suarez, Liza M.; Baker, Bruce L. | Family Relations, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Child Externalizing Behavior and Parents' Stress: The Role of Social Support


Suarez, Liza M., Baker, Bruce L., Family Relations


Liza M. Suarez and Bruce L. Baker**

We studied the role of social support (marital adjustment, spousal support, and global support) in the relationship between child externalizing behavior problems and mothers' and fathers ' well being. Seventy-five first grade children were classified into three groups (control, moderate externalizing, and high externalizing) based on parent and teacher reports of behavior problems. Outcome measures were parents' perceived negative impact of the child on social relationships, as well as negative and positive feelings toward parenting. There was evidence for main, moderating (buffering), and mediating effects of social support indicators on outcome measures. Implications of these findings for family intervention are discussed.

Key Words: child externalizing problems, family stress, marital adjustment, parenting, social support, spousal support.

he everyday responsibilities of parenting are stressful for many adults (Cox, Owen, Lewis, & Henderson, 1989). When a child has behavior problems, daily childrearing tasks can affect parental functioning to an even greater extent (Anastopoulos, Guevremont, Shelton, & DuPaul, 1992; Eyberg, Boggs, & Rodriguez, 1992; Fischer, 1990). Hyperactive, aggressive, or defiant child behaviors are often associated with, for example, ineffective discipline strategies, complaints from teachers, social embarrassment, sibling conflicts, and strain in the marital relationship. The "pile up" of these types of incidents results in greater levels of parenting stress (Webster-Stratton, 1990), and may result in negative parental perceptions of their children.

It has been established that child behavior problems are related to higher levels of stress in their parents (Barkley, 1985; Barkley & Cunningham, 1979; Eyberg, Boggs, & Rodriguez, 1992; Humphries, Kinsbourne, & Swanson, 1978; Mash & Johnston, 1990; Mouton & Tuma, 1988). Although we generally employ the commonly used term "parenting stress," we are interested in child impact, which is a more general domain that encompasses stress. Impact, however, can be positive or negative, and it can include different aspects of family life. Moreover, one can ask parents directly about the impact of their child, rather than infer this from a correlation between child behavior and parental stress. Donenberg and Baker (1993) assessed parental perceptions of child impact on social, marital, and sibling relationships, on finances, and on positive as well as negative feelings about parenting. Compared with mothers of non-problem children, mothers of children with externalizing behavior problems reported more negative impact in several domains and less positive feelings about parenting. Surprisingly, reported impacts of children with externalizing behaviors on the family were comparable to those reported by mothers of children with autism.

The perceived impact of these children's behavior on their families, however, may depend on the resources available to parents for managing problems. A resource domain of particular interest is perceived social support, especially as it relates to childrearing. Researchers have suggested that parents' perceived support, as well as other resources such as education and psychological adjustment, serve to lessen the negative impact of child problems on parental functioning (e.g., Webster-Stratton, 1990; Belsky, 1984). A large body of research has been generated on the role of social support on psychological adjustment. In a literature review, Cohen and Wills (1985) found evidence for both main and buffering effects of social support.

The purpose of this study was to examine the mechanisms through which children with externalizing behaviors impact parents' feelings of stress and perceptions of parenting. We were particularly interested in the role of perceived support, including marital adjustment, spousal support, and global social network support. …

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