Parents’ work stress linked to worse parent-child relationships and worse child behaviour

A Portuguese study has found that when mothers experience work-family conflict, both their own relationship with their young children and the relationship between the children and their father is likely to be worse. But the same is not true the other way round—when fathers experience work-family conflict, their own relationship with their children is likely to be worse, but the mother-child relationship doesn’t suffer.

The researchers, led by Joana Vieira, studied 317 dual-earner couples with children between 3 and 6 years old. They looked at three things—work-life balance for both the mother and father, the two parent-child relationships, and the behaviour of the children (e.g., unhappiness, solitariness, distractedness, overactivity, peer relational problems).

A child of a mother experiencing work-family conflict is no less likely to behave badly than another child, except when the work-family conflict is affecting the mother-child relationship. For fathers it’s different: if he is suffering work-family conflict, the child’s behaviour is more likely to be bad. The authors suggest that mothers may be better at managing their parenting role, possibly because theirs is a much more established role than the parenting role of fathers. Also, mothers may be able to get better support from others, and overall they spend more time with their children, which might mitigate the impact of work-family conflict. Meanwhile, fathers are engaged in a redefinition of their role, still feeling a key responsibility to earn but wanting to be close to their children, too. So work family conflict may be upsetting fathers’ parenting practice more directly.

Vieira JM, Matias M, Ferreira T, Lopez FG, Matos PM (2016), Parents’ Work-Family Experiences and Children’s Problem Behaviors: The Mediating Role of the Parent–Child Relationship. Journal of Family Psychology, March 2016.