Research from all over the world has demonstrated that economic recessions can harm family relationships and parenting and that there are significant differences between how mothers, fathers, sons and daughters respond. The research suggests that support to parents is important during recessions, particularly if that support reinforces family relationships and recognises gender differences.

Portuguese researchers, led by PhD student Gabriela Fonseca at the University of Coimbra, reviewed 39 studies from the USA, Finland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Belgium, Argentina, South Korea and Singapore. The US studies covered three events —the Great Depression of 1930s, the 1980s agricultural recession and the 2008 global recession. These studies looked both at subjective perceptions on the part of family members and also at objective indicators like unemployment and job insecurity.

Recessions strain couples’ relationships, leading to less communication, more conflict and more thoughts about divorce. Unstable careers for women, long unemployment for men and lower household income have all been found to exacerbate these effects. Some studies have found that men are more likely to respond with depression, greater hostility and less warmth toward their wives or partners. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to become anxious, more demanding and less supportive, leading to increased likelihood that their husbands or partners will withdraw.

Parenting also comes under pressure in recessions. Mothers’ spanking of children increased in the 2008 recession. Other studies have found that father-child interactions are more vulnerable to recessions than mother-child interactions—fathers were more likely to become punitive, uninvolved and less authoritative. Several studies found that these changes in parenting affect children and teens negatively. In a US study of the 1980s recession, rejection by fathers affected girls more severely. But in another study of the same recession, adolescent girls were likely to have better outcomes than boys in response to their parents becoming depressed.

Relationships and parenting are linked. Several studies showed that deteriorating relationships impaired parenting. The degree to which this is true was affected by circumstances—for example, it was worse if the children had a history of mental health problems, or if the children—girls in particular—already demonstrated behavioural problems.

The studies also found protective factors, including men who were calm and even-tempered, and couples who entered a recession with a strong relationship. Exposure to paternal hostility was buffered when mothers were more supportive.

The study sheds light on how families can be supported during recessions:

  • Supporting parenting relationships, and not just the primary caregiver, is important.
  • The different responses of men and women, perhaps driven by continuing different roles and expectations in relation to earning and caregiving, need to be considered.

Header photo: Tony Fischer. Creative Commons.

References

Fonseca G, Cunha D, Crespo C & Relva AP (2016), Families in the context of macroeconomic crises: A systematic review, Journal of Family Psychology 30