Financial worries always add to a parent’s stress. New research, though, shows that for mothers with a particular genetic profile, money woes make them more likely to engage in harsh parenting. They are more likely to hit or scream at their children.
The really strange thing is that these same mothers, when finances improve, are actually better mothers than some moms with a different genetic profile.
The Columbia University study identified what lead researcher Irwin Garfinkel calls a “sensitive gene,” gene DRD2. Mothers with this sensitive gene were found to be more reactive to good and bad financial situations. When finances are in peril, these moms take their anxiety out on the kids. But when the money situation starts to look better, these moms become responsive and sweet to their kids again.
Garfinkel says, “You have the same genes, and with a different environment it’s a completely different story. I think that’s the most amazing part of what we found.”
The study came about when researchers following “at-risk” families during the recent recession noticed that parents who hit and yelled at their kids quit doing that even before the recession ended. They found that once it appeared that the economy would get better, “sensitive” mothers relaxed and became their old, charming selves again. “Insensitive” mothers didn’t change.
The DRD2 gene is part of the dopamine system, which affects emotional stability and aggressive behavior. The study didn’t focus on fathers simply because mothers were more available.
Mothers without the DRD2 gene did not change their parenting but stayed the same (which could be harsh or could be pleasant) regardless of family finances.
Garfield uses an analogy to make sense of the difference between “sensitive” and “insensitive” parents: while some plants – dandelions, for example – survive in all sorts of conditions, orchids die in poor conditions and thrive in the right environment. DRD2 mothers are like orchids, blossoming beautifully when conditions are right.
This whole idea needs more study, and no one is suggesting that mothers (or dads) find out their own genetic profiles in order to manage their kids. But here’s what we can take away from this:
- We should understand that finances and other uncertainties can affect brain chemistry and can make us into people we don’t even recognize as ourselves;
- When we are feeling stressed by out-of-control events, we may not be at our best as parents. We should be more mindful around our kids so our anxieties don’t come out in harsh over-reaction to everyday upsets;
- We have it in us to be better parents than we are. One incident of over-reaction doesn’t make us into bad people but is a warning that we need to get ourselves under better control.
In addition, it makes sense to avoid money stress as much as possible. Here are three tips:
- Build up an emergency fund to avoid feeling too strapped. Just setting aside a few dollars a week will add up. The key is to keep this fund going and not tap into it for things that aren’t really emergencies.
- Work really hard to get out of debt. Make a commitment to pay off one credit card or loan account and then, once that’s paid off, pay off another. Once you’re out of debt stay out.
- Use a daily exercise routine to let off steam. Just getting out and going for a walk will clear your head and settle your anxieties. Do what you need to do to avoid letting worry over finances affect your kids.
Brain chemistry and serious stressors make a volatile combination. Get help – with your finances or with your mental state – when harsh parenting takes over.
Don’t let your family be “at risk.”
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.