Break Out the Dr. Seuss, Mom!

Single moms who spend more time with their children feel less stress

(RxWiki News) Perhaps one of the only things more difficult than being a mom is being a single mom. With all the parenting falling on one person, how can moms relieve stress? Play with their kids.

A recent unpublished study from graduate students at Kansas State University found in a study about single moms and stress that engaging more with their children led to lower levels of stress for the moms.

"Mom, spend time with your children."

Blake Berryhill, a doctoral student in marriage and family therapy at Kansas State University, and two fellow grad students who all work at the K-State Family Center, conducted a study looking more closely at the experiences of single moms.

They honed in on issues related to the stress of being a parent, how the moms engaged with their children, and how these factors affected the parent's impression of their child's temperament.

When approximately 41 percent of all babies in the US are currently born to single mothers, the higher amount of stress that comes with this job has significant social implications. Finding ways to help moms decrease this stress can mean happier and more fulfilling lives for the mom, her children and those around them.

"Single mothers can feel constantly overloaded and overwhelmed at being a parent and trying to fulfill all of their responsibilities," Berryhill said. "Being a single mother brings extra stress, because they have decreased economic resources, longer work hours and their social support network may be limited as well. Because of all of this, they can feel the constant stress of 'how am I doing in my role as a mother?'"

The three researchers relied on data for 2,370 single mothers from a national data set related to single motherhood called The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. They gathered information on the child's temperament at age one and then on the parents' stress levels and amount of engagement with the children when the kids were aged one, three and five.

The data revealed several patterns, but the most surprising to the researchers was that more engagement with their children appeared to reduce mothers' stress levels.

The time the moms spent with the child could include a number of activities, such as reading stories, playing with their child, taking walks and doing crafts. Even just putting their children to bed can be an opportunity to engage.

"The finding was especially interesting to us because it helped us realize that the answer is spending time with their children," Berryhill said. "Being a single mother and being a parent in general is very exhausting, but if a mother is willing to spend time with her children, it can reduce her parental stress because she will feel that in her role as a mom, she is doing an adequate job."

Other patterns that emerged from their research were that single moms who felt very stressed when their children were a year old were more likely to still feel very stressed when the child was five. Time did not lessen the feelings of stress.

Similarly, moms who were more engaged on a daily basis with their one-year-olds continued to be more engaged with their children four years later.

This level of engagement, however, is affected by how the mom perceives her child's disposition, which also affects her stress levels.

The more difficult the child appears to be when he or she is a year old, the more stressed the mom feels and the less likely she is to engage with her child at both one and five years old.

Yet the amount of stress single moms feel does not mean they will spend more or less time with their children. The only association seen between engagement and stress was that more engagement leads to less stress.

The best thing a single parent can do, then, is engage with her child early on in the child's life, counsels LuAnn Pierce, a licensed clinical social worker in Colorado.

"The fact that the parent also benefits from early engagement begins a habit of positive parenting," Pierce said. "Early engagement is a win-win for single parents and children."

Pierce said she can see how a child's temperament can lead to a cyclical pattern where single parents are not engaged, so learning to understand how children are trying to express their needs can help them feel less overwhelmed by a seemingly fussier child.

"This study finds, among other things, that being engaged with your child in the very early months is harder to do with children who are fussy and difficult to satisfy," she said. "This leads to a pattern in later years of less engagement and more parental stress, which will perpetuate the cycle, ie, a child is more demanding to get needs met."

"It seems that helping parents better understand temperament, how to decode the basic needs being expressed by children of different temperaments and how and when to engage the child may be critical for positive parenting of children whose temperament is less agreeable," Pierce said.

She gave an example of a child who cries and whose mother then thinks the child must want to be held. But the child may feel uncomfortable being held, which makes the situation and the child's response worse. Learning a child's cues, most often through trial and error can help parents learn to better respond to their child's needs.

For example, when a young child cries we instinctively think the child needs to be held while other basic needs are met.

"Learning sooner rather than later that feeling confined is uncomfortable for the child can make a huge difference in how to approach everything from what clothing feels good to them to the years of struggle with the car seat that sets off an outburst before every car trip," she said.

And if this situation is true of your child, Pierce recommends speaking to your doctor "if you are concerned about a child who is extremely sensitive to touch, fabrics or being 'too close' to people or objects."

One of the co-authors of the paper, Kristy Soloski, pointed out that the role caregivers can fill is helping moms learn how to best spend time with their children - a role that friends and families of single parents can fulfill as well.

"If we can help moms spend more time with their child and help them in that way, then their levels of parental stress will be reduced and they will have more fulfillment in their role as a mother," Soloski said. "Our role becomes helping them find meaningful ways to interact with their children."

The study was announced by the press office of Kansas State University. The research does not yet appear to have been slated for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Review Date: 
June 22, 2012