It will come as no surprise to anyone who keeps up with psychology research that much of who we are and what we do goes back to the quality of our family relationships. Positive, supportive family relationships contribute to our well-being in countless ways—while negative, abusive ones can be deadly.
Of course, most of us don’t tend to analyze what we do from the viewpoint of our own family history—we just want to give our children the best possible environment for their physical and emotional development because we love them. They’re an extension of us, we’re invested in their future. It just happens to be a bonus for society that when we focus on meeting the needs of our children, the wider community and future generations reap benefits too.
But it isn’t always easy to carve out the necessary quality family time in our busy Western society. Increasingly, families need two wage-earners just supply the “basics.” School, extracurricular activities and other obligations also encroach on down time. How do these daily stressors affect familes? This was the question explored by Rena Repetti and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a peer reviewed study published in the April 2009 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.
“The family is popularly imagined as a stable haven, a place where individuals come together to recuperate from the ups and downs of the outside world,” wrote the researchers. “But the family has ups and downs of its own; it is a dynamic system, not impermeable to outside influences but porous and continually in flux. For example, parents’ job schedules and children’s homework shape family time, activities, and routines. Other effects of work and school on the family are less overt.”
Certainly, as the researchers explain, people often continue to react to a stressful event long after it has occurred and may find themselves nursing too many work wounds at home as a result. How does the fallout affect family relationships?
“We have found that, following more stressful days at work, spouses and parents adjust their social behavior at home in two ways.” write the UCLA researchers. “One common pattern is an overall reduction in social engagement and expression of emotion.” Mothers as well as fathers withdrew emotionally and disengaged socially from their children after stressful or exceptionally demanding work days. Spouses “were more distracted and less responsive” toward one another. Children also showed lingering reactions to school stress. Both elementary-school-age children and teens initiated more conflict with other family members after a day filled with academic problems or difficulties with peers.
“A second short-term response to job stress resembles the stereotypic image of an agitated employee kicking his dog after an argument with his boss,” says the report. This plays out as “an increase in irritability and displays of anger with both spouse and children.” Ripetti and her colleagues note that this second pattern is most likely to occur in people who have a history of psychological distress.
How harmful is all this take-home stress in the long run? It depends. If the short-term effects are allowed to build up over time, there may be more lasting effects. Especially within families with high levels of conflict, or where one or more family members have a history of depression and anxiety.
We do know from other studies that family support and parental engagement are crucial to the well-being of children, so if our coping style in reaction to stress at work involves withdrawing from our families at home, it can’t be good over the long haul. As difficult as it may be to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, resilience experts suggest that connecting, rather than withdrawing, is our best bet for handling stress. Rapetti’s research is fascinating and important in several respects: but perhaps the most important thing parents can take home from this study is a new awareness of what they may be bringing home to their children at the end of their work day.