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  • Writer's picturedocschleg

Parent Stress/Child Behavior

Please read this post at your own risk. If you are a parent and are stressed and overwhelmed right now, you probably might want to save this one for later. I say this as a psychologist and parent of a child with behaviors.

Article: Parental Stress, Discipline Strategies, and Child Behavior Problems in Families with Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. By Shawler and Sullivan. In Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 2017, 32 (2).

I like reading these kinds of articles not only for their outcomes, but also for how they summarize relevant research. What these researchers were trying to do is to replicate some findings that have been found in non-ASD populations. And replicate they did.

It should be no surprise that children with disruptive behavior have parents that are stressed. Causality is not hard to imagine using common sense. Poorly behaved kids make parents stressed. What this study attempted to demonstrate was that the effect was bi-directional. So, not only do poorly behaved kids cause parents to be stressed, but stressed parents cause negative behavior (the researchers call it "challenging behavior", but we know what they are referring to) in their children. This should startle you, even if it is not a huge surprise. And I know that the last thing a parent needs to hear is that they are causing their child's negative behavior, which is, among other things, making their lives even worse. The Mindfulness people might call this the First Dart (my child is driving me crazy) and the Second Dart (I may be causing my child's behaviors that are driving me crazy, and now I feel bad about that).

This finding explains several things to me, but mostly it provides a research-based explanation to the question, "How did it get like this?" I cannot tell you how many high-quality, advanced-level parents ask me that question. The study went on to examine "mediators", or variables that explain the link between parental stress and negative child behaviors. After all, not all stressed parents have children who exhibit negative child behaviors. The big mediator seems to be parental discipline strategies, and specifically, "harsh or punitive" parental discipline strategies.

This makes sense as well. When you are stressed, you are more likely to yell or make foolish pronouncements (e.g., "go to your room for the next year"). This relationship between stress and foolish parenting is discussed at great length in the book All Joy and No Fun, by Jennifer Senior. I recommend it and may review it here when I finish it.

The good news about mediators is that it gives us a third place to intervene. Here are your current options for reducing your child's negative behavior:

1. Change your child's behavior

2. Change how you discipline your child

3. Reduce your stress

Most parents will readily admit that they have limited control over their child's behavior, and I would concur with that assessment. Most of the parents I work with, however, have an incredible amount of control over their own behavior, and for them I would recommend option 2 or 3. Theoretically, if there is actual causation going on here (which was not proved, by the way; these are still just correlations), if a parent of a child with "challenging behaviors" did nothing else but work to reduce their stress (e.g., committed to doing deep breathing 3 times a day), they could expect a reduction in their child's negative behaviors.

Final note: all things being equal, the level of stress of parents of ASD individuals is sky-high. This is according to a whole host of research. It is hard to parent these children, and there are limited resources and supports for parents of ASD children. Even if your child does not exhibit "challenging behaviors", you would absolutely benefit from systematic reduction of stress (and it would not likely hurt your child either).

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