On the days my husband works late, I sometimes morph into the mom I don’t want to be: short and snappish with my kids, or silent and sullen. I retreat into the kitchen to try to give myself space while they play together. It’s annoying and frustrating for me to see myself become impatient and frazzled, especially when I know that it’s not actually anything that has happened – it’s the anticipation that it’s going to be a long, hard day that puts me on edge. Knowing that it’s going to just be me getting the kids to bed at night makes the rest of the day a little tense, as I brace for the impact of wrangling three little people into pajamas and under the covers.
That I, or anybody, becomes a harsh parent in difficult times is no surprise. In fact, it seems like a fairly obvious reaction to stress. But there’s more to the story than “times are hard, mom gets stressed, mom is harsh with kids.” NPR reports that depending on your genetic make-up, you might be a mom who is more sensitive to harsh times, and more likely to be harsh with your kids when those times roll around.
Researchers following families at the beginning of the most recent recession noticed a rise in harsh parenting – including screaming at or striking their children – as the recession grew worse. But once it became clear that the economy was not going to collapse completely, and that it had settled into a recession and not a depression, those mothers who were most harsh when things were looking bad exhibited much less harsh behavior. Other mothers, however, did not show such swings in parenting behavior. They were more steady and consistent through the development of the recession and the stress that accompanied it.
So, what was the difference between the harsh parents and the steady parents? A gene called DRD2, which is associated with aggressive behavior. The harsh parents had a more sensitive version of the gene – they were more sensitive to stress or the anticipation of it, and more likely to act out on the stress. But those with the insensitive version of the gene did not have the same aggressive response. Their behavior toward their children was more consistent.
No one knows whether or not the results of the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences will continue to hold up, or how they will develop as researchers continue to probe. But it does seem as though, as mothers, we can be aware of our response to stress – or anticipated stress. Do we have, or suspect we have, the “mean mom gene?” If so, during stressful times, it may be even more important to give ourselves space, do things that relieve stress, and make time to relax. And maybe when we do find ourselves losing patience and on the brink of behaving badly toward our children, we’ll be more aware of that and able to take a step back and say, “I don’t want to be that kind of mom.”
photo via istockphoto.com
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