Parenting stress

Support for women with high and low education

'Parenting stress' (the stress experienced by parents in caring for a child) undermines sensitive, responsive parenting and negatively affects children's development and wellbeing. A new study, Parenting stress and parent support among mothers with high and low education, explores whether differences in parenting stress, according to parental socio-economic position, can be explained by any differences in support that mothers receive.

The study gathered information on mothers' parenting stress from over 5,800 families in a large, nationally representative sample (Growing Up in Scotland second birth cohort), interviewed in 2011-2012 when the child was ten months. Parenting stress was measured using an abbreviated version of the Parental Stress Scale[1], computing the average score of mothers' agreement with three statements (5-point response scale):

  • 'Having a child leaves little time and flexibility in my life'
  • 'It is difficult to balance different responsibilities because of my child'
  • 'Having a child has meant having too few choices and too little control over my life'

We found a 'U-shaped' distribution of parenting stress according to mothers' educational level (a measure of socio-economic position). We found relatively high levels of parenting stress for those with high levels of education (degree-level qualifications, 35% of the sample) and for those with low levels of education (at or below lower level Scottish standard grades or equivalent, 13% of the sample), compared to those with intermediate level qualifications (52% of the sample). Overall, parenting stress was highest among low-educated women.

We examined various aspects of support to mothers from grandparents, friends and formal sources (childcare providers and health professionals) to see whether support deficits helped to explain the relatively high parenting stress among high- and low-educated women. In so doing, we found it helpful to consider the higher support needs of two important subgroups of mothers: single parents and migrants (not born in Scotland).

Single parent women were strongly represented within the low-educated group (46%, compared to 21% overall). High- and low-educated mothers both contained a high share of migrants (30% and 21% respectively, with around half from overseas; compared to 12% of intermediate-educated mothers).

Less frequent grandparent support was associated with higher parenting stress among both high- and low-educated mothers. This was mainly because of the high proportion of migrants in these groups, who were less likely to have a grandparent living nearby.

In other respects, support deficits differed for high- and low-educated groups of mothers. Low-educated mothers' stress was, in part, attributable to relatively small informal support networks from grandparents and friends, even though they were able to access networks frequently. Small grandparent networks were a particular limitation for single parents. Mothers without a resident partner often received daily help from their own mother, but lacked any contact with the child's other grandparents (including the maternal grandfather).

Low-educated mothers' parenting stress was also partly attributable to negative perceptions of support from health professionals, such as health visitors. These mothers were relatively likely to raise concerns such as fear of stigma or interference, being unsure who to ask, or feeling that they could not be helped.

In contrast, high-educated mothers had relatively large networks of friends, and remaining in contact with both sets of grandparents was the norm. High-educated mothers also perceived relatively few barriers to formal support from health professionals.

Higher parenting stress among high-educated mothers was partly attributable to a greater reliance on formal providers of childcare (such as a childminder or nursery) rather than informal providers such as grandparents. Compared to other mothers, the high-educated mothers were most likely to be in full-time employment by the time of the ten-month interview, creating a greater need for substantial amounts of regular childcare. Migrants within this group were particularly reliant on formal providers, as they lacked grandparents within easy reach, but informal childcare also proved less suited to Scotland-born mothers' needs. High-educated mothers' parenting stress was also, in part, explained by less frequent contact with friends, even by remote means such as phone or email - perhaps related to longer working hours and reduced leisure time.

Overall, the findings suggest that differences in support are important in explaining high- and low-educated mothers' greater parenting stress, with support deficits accounting for around half of the additional stress experienced by these groups. The study points to beneficial effects of different sources and forms of support in alleviating parenting stress. It indicates the important role of informal support from grandparents, while pointing to limitations associated with over-dependence on the maternal grandmother; and suggests that a mother's own friends provide an extra dimension to support from an older generation of relatives.

Formal support from health professionals may also alleviate parenting stress among disadvantaged mothers with young children, although it needs a sensitive approach to overcome mistrust or stigma. In the case of high-educated mothers, the ability of formal childcare providers to support full-time working hours is more important.

In finding higher parenting stress and common support needs among high- and low-educated migrant mothers, this study adds to concerns for immigrant parents' integration into informal support networks. High parenting stress was found for internal migrants from the rest of the UK as well as those from overseas. This is likely to reflect the geographical remoteness of Scotland from the rest of the UK, and further research is needed to establish whether internal migrants elsewhere experience similar difficulties.

Aside from common needs of high- and low-educated migrants, the study found opposite sets of support needs for high- and low-educated groups of mothers. The study underlines the desirability of taking a sophisticated approach to risk assessment. It suggests a prime need for tailored outreach and targeted interventions to maximise benefits to different groups of mothers, as well as efficient use of resources.

Parkes, A., Sweeting, H. and Wight, D. Parenting stress and parent support among mothers with high and low education, Journal of Family Psychology, Jul 20, 2015


[1] Berry, J.O. and Jones, W.H. The Parental Stress Scale: Initial Psychometric Evidence. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 1995; 12(3): 463-472.doi:10.1177/0265407595123009