Abstract: Parenting during a Pandemic: Assessing Parents' Daily Stress and Use of Punitive Punishment (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

All live presentations are in Eastern time zone.

Parenting during a Pandemic: Assessing Parents' Daily Stress and Use of Punitive Punishment

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Bridget Freisthler, Ph.D., Associate Dean for Research, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Caileigh Chadwick, B.S., Graduate Student, Ohio State University College of Social Work, Columbus, OH
Katherine Renick, MPH, Research Specialist, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Ian Murphy, MPH, Research Associate, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Karla Shockley McCarthy, MSW, LSW, Doctoral Student and Graduate Research Associate, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Abigail Underwood, BA, PhD Student, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Yun Ye, MPH, Graduate Student, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Jennifer Price Wolf, PhD, Associate Research Scientist, Prevention Research Center, Berkeley
Background and Purpose. COVID-19 is an unprecedented worldwide event that ushered in a new era of how individuals and families interact. During natural disasters (e.g., hurricane, earthquakes) and economic hardship (e.g., Great Recession), children are at higher risk for child abuse and neglect. The COVID-19 pandemic is a health, economic, and social crisis that has radically changed people’s use of their environment, access to social supports, and social isolation. While the full impact may not be known for years, it is likely that increased parent-child time within the home may increase child abuse or neglect that is hidden from mandated reporters (e.g., teachers, child care providers) who are an important front-line defense in keeping children safe. In this study, we explore the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on stress and context on punitive parenting practices, including physical punishment.

Methods. We used Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) to provide real-time feedback on stress levels and parenting practices. We recruited participants from Central Ohio through Craigslist, social media, and word of mouth. We consented 342 parents to children aged 2 to 12 who agreed to respond to brief surveys three times a day (10 a.m., 3 p.m. and 9 p.m.) for 14 days. Each survey asked parents to rate their stress level on a scale of 1 to 10, identify where they were when answering the questions (e.g., home, work), and whether or not the focal child was with the participant since the last survey. If present, participants also asked four parenting questions. Two of those reflected non-punitive parenting practices (e.g., demonstrate the right thing to do) and two were punitive practices (e.g., shout or yell at child). We analyze these data using hierarchical linear models (time points nested within individuals).

Results. Our study found that parents reported significantly higher levels of stress during the 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. time periods, as compared to the 9 p.m survey. These results could signal that acting as teachers, parents, and employees during the day increases stress levels of parents that lessen when it nears bedtime for children. On average, higher levels of stress showed a statistically significant relationship to increased use of non-punitive parenting techniques.

Conclusions and Implications. During the current pandemic, parents are spending much more time with their children, combining their role as parent with other tasks. Parents who report higher levels of stress may be more likely to let the kids misbehave or they may be reacting to children's behaviors using more non-punitive discipline to help them feel more in control of the situation. Although high stress has consistently been associated with child maltreatment, our findings suggest that stress may be associated with more parenting interactions overall, and be particularly salient during the daytime. These results highlight why we may see higher rates of child maltreatment when ‘stay at home’ restrictions are lifted and speak to the need to identify other sentinels who can report on possible child maltreatment when families are more isolated than normal.