UCLA study examines how outside stressors affect family relationships
A common theme of this blog is that much of who we are and what we do can be traced back to the quality of our family relationships. Positive, supportive family relationships contribute to our well-being in countless ways—while negative, abusive ones can be deadly.
Most parents would love to give their children the best possible environment in which to develop physically and emotionally: they understand that it's not only the immediate well-being of children that is at stake, but their future well-being—and that of the wider community as well.
But however ardently parents may hope to ensure that positive environment, it isn't always easy for them to do so. In Western society it is increasingly necessary for families to have two wage earners, and school, extracurricular activities and other obligations also encroach. Could there be an effect on family interaction as a result? If so, how? This was essentially the question explored by Rena Repetti and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a peer reviewed study published in the April 2009 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.
"The family is popularly imagined as a stable haven, a place where individuals come together to recuperate from the ups and downs of the outside world," wrote the researchers. "But the family has ups and downs of its own; it is a dynamic system, not impermeable to outside influences but porous and continually in flux. For example, parents' job schedules and children's homework shape family time, activities, and routines. Other effects of work and school on the family are less overt."
Certainly, as the researchers explain, we may continue to react to a particular stressor long after the event has occurred. As a result, we may continue to nurse our wounds after returning home. How does the fallout affect our family relationships?
"We have found that, following more stressful days at work, spouses and parents adjust their social behavior at home in two ways. One common pattern is an overall reduction in social engagement and expression of emotion," says the report. In a series of studies, Repetti and her colleagues found that mothers as well as fathers withdrew emotionally and disengaged socially from their children after stressful or exceptionally demanding work days, and spouses "were more distracted and less responsive" toward one another. Children also showed lingering reactions to school stress. Both elementary-school-age children and teens initiated more conflict with other family members after a day characterized by problems in academics or with peers.
"A second short-term response to job stress resembles the stereotypic image of an agitated employee kicking his dog after an argument with his boss," write the researchers. This plays out as "an increase in irritability and displays of anger with both spouse and children." Ripetti and her colleagues note that this second pattern usually occurs in a particular subset of people: particularly those with a history of psychological distress.
How harmful is all this take-home stress in the long run? It depends. If the short-term effects are allowed to build up over time, there may be more lasting effects. Especially within families with high levels of conflict, or where one or more family members have a history of depression and anxiety.
We do know from other studies explored in this blog that family support and parental engagement are crucial to the well-being of children, so if our coping style in reaction to stress at work involves withdrawing from our families at home, it can't be good over the long haul. As difficult as it may be to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, resilience experts suggest that connecting rather than withdrawing is our best bet for handling stress. Rapetti's research is fascinating and important in several respects: but perhaps the most important thing parents can take home from this study is a new awareness of what they may be bringing home to their children at the end of their work day.