Primary Sources: What Makes Some Young Mothers More Likely to Be 'Harsh' Parents?

Photograph of a young mother holding her baby on her lap.

Adolescent Motherhood and Capital: Interaction Effects of Race/Ethnicity on Harsh Parenting” (abstract). Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 41, No. 1. (January 2013.)

What it’s about: Researchers from Temple University wanted to know whether a mother’s age and other factors, like the level of social support she has and whether her child’s father is involved in his or her upbringing, influence the mother’s interactions with her children. To find the answer, the researchers surveyed young mothers 19 and younger and mothers 26 and older--a total of 4,700 women.

Why read it: This study is unique because it looked beyond the question of whether young moms are more likely than older moms to use physical and psychological aggression, or harsh parenting. The researchers also wanted to know how caregivers and youth workers can help teen parents use positive parenting. To that end, the study teases out both risk factors that make young moms more likely to be harsh and protective factors that contribute to positive parenting.

​Biggest takeaways for youth workers: Overall, adolescent mothers were indeed more likely than older moms to use harsh parenting. But things appeared differently when the researchers looked at race and ethnicity. Hispanic mothers were less likely to be harsh compared to white and African American mothers. In addition:

  • Adolescent mothers with less than a high school diploma were more likely to perpetrate abuse or use harsh parenting. But Hispanic mothers with a lower education were less likely to use physical aggression with their children than were white mothers with a lower education.
  • Adolescent mothers of all the races and ethnicities studied who had worked since their child’s birth were more likely to use harsh parenting.
  • Young moms who were depressed had lower scores on assessments that measured their warmth toward their children and support for them.
  • When fathers were positively involved with their children, young moms were less likely to act harshly toward the children. Less support from fathers was associated with greater use of harsh parenting among white adolescent mothers.

The researchers highlight the need to support young mothers, give them opportunities for education, help fathers be involved, and provide extra supports to those who work. But the researchers also stress the importance of giving mothers and young families services they want and need. Not all supports will be considered as useful for all races and ethnicities.

Additional references:  Researchers used the Conflict Tactics Scales to measure physiological and physical aggression, The Composite International Diagnostic Interview was also used and measured maternal depressive symptoms, and the Emotionality and Shyness sections of the Emotionality, Activity, and Sociability (EAS) Temperament Survey for Children was used to determine the child temperament.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB, or the Administration for Children & Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of this and other publications.)

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