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Parental Stress

Alisha M. Hardman, Extension Graduate Student
Reviewed by Rose Allen, Family Relations Extension Educator

Within the family system, stress is defined as pressure or tension that leads to change. Family crisis or stress is the result of the interaction of three factors:

  • The nature of the stressor event.
  • The family’s potential available resources.
  • The meaning or definition that the family assigns the stressor.

The Nature of the Stressor Event

Stressors or stressor events can be divided into three types:

  • Normative stressors are events that are either common to everyday life, such as daily hassles, or longer term developmental transitions that are components of the typical family life course (having children).
  • Nonnormative stressors are unpredictable, sudden, dramatic occurrences that have considerable potential to disrupt the lives of parents and children (natural disasters, sudden death, illness, or injury, or winning the state lottery).
  • Chronic stressors are atypical circumstances that occur over an extended period of time, are difficult to amend, and may have debilitating effects for parents and children.

The Family’s Potential Available Resources

Resources are the potential strengths that individuals and families have that can be used to cope with stressors. Personal resources of parents include economic well-being, knowledge (e.g, child development), and physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. Familial and social resources include those supports that social networks may provide such as advice, social support, material assistance, and encouragement.

The Meaning or Definition that the Family Assigns the Stressor

The meaning the family attributes to the stress event determines whether they experience the crisis or stressor event as positive, negative, or neutral. An identical event or stressor may result in varied responses from different family members.

The Effects of Parental Stress

Family stress is often influenced or moderated by parental stress. As such, it is important that parents take action to manage the amount of stress the family is experiencing. There are a couple strategies or responses that parents can use to moderate family stress.

Parental Coping — The specific efforts that parents use to manage a stressor or crisis event. Coping strategies may be healthy or unhealthy but either way are used as ways to cope with stress. Strategies include:

  • Taking direct actions like acquiring resources, learning new skills, and asking for assistance.
  • Altering one’s interpretation by reframing the circumstance (viewing it differently).
  • Managing one’s emotions through social support or substance use.

Parental Adaptation — The ability of parents or other family members to recover from stress and crisis. Recovery may occur either through the elimination or reduction of stress which allows the family to return to their regular patterns or through the family’s ability to adjust to the new circumstance and regain stability.

Parental stress impacts both individuals and family relationships. Parental stress tends to spill over into child rearing, contributing to parents being less responsive and affectionate toward their children. This decline in the quality of parenting may lead to a variety of negative children’s outcomes, such as:

  • Feelings of rejection
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Disruptive and aggressive behaviors
  • Social withdrawal

Less distressed parents tend to be more responsive, warm, rational, and moderate in the kinds of control they use with children. Child characteristics associated with such parenting practices include:

  • High self-esteem
  • School achievement
  • Effective social skills
  • Ability to achieve a balance between conforming to parents and gaining autonomy
The degree of stress a family experiences is highly dependent on the stressors, environment, and individuals involved.


McKenry, P. C. & Price, S. J. (2005). Families coping with change: A conceptual overview. In P. C. McKenry & S. J. Price Families and change: Coping with stressful events and transitions (3rd ed., pp. 1-24).

Peterson, G. W. & Hennon, C. B. (2005). Conceptualizing parental stress with family stress theory. In P. C. McKenry & S. J. Price Families and change: Coping with stressful events and transitions (3rd ed., pp. 25-48).

You may also be interested in resources for dealing with stress, or resources aimed at farm families or disaster recovery. See other recommended resources for resources beyond Extension.

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