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Study finds discrimination against mothers leaves negative impacts on their children

Frances McLelland Institute

Katharine Zeiders investigated the impacts of discrimination on mothers and their children. Discrimination can have a greater impact on young mothers than economic stressors.

recent study led by Katharine Zeiders, an associate professor in the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences, looked at how stressors associated with acculturation and discrimination can affect adolescent mothers and their children. The study focused specifically on adolescent mothers and children of Mexican origin.

“We found that discrimination and acculturation stressors experienced by the mother and the grandmother impacted the way that the adolescent mother and child interacted,” Zeiders said.

The more discrimination that mothers experienced, the more intrusive relationships and decreased sensitivity were observed between them and their child, according to Zeiders. The adolescent mothers also demonstrated more depressive symptoms. In turn, this impacted the child’s social and emotional functions, as well as academic achievements, Zeiders said.

While previous studies had linked acculturation and discrimination stress to depression, anxiety and other symptoms, Zeiders and her team investigated the stressors’ effects on children.

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A combination of observational research, surveys and interviews were used over the course of six years to assess the behaviors of adolescent mothers, their mothers and their children, Zeiders said. The mother of the adolescent mother was included, because in many cases, she played a large role in the life of the mother and child.

This study differed from others completed on the effects of stressors on children because it was longitudinal, or over an extended period of time. Researchers had previously focused on the effects of economic and neighborhood stressors on parents and their children. Zeiders and her team chose to focus specifically on acculturation and discrimination, with surprising results.

“Discrimination is mistreatment based on your ethnicity, and acculturation stressors are stressors associated with adapting to life in the U.S.,” Zeiders said.

These two stressors combined have a greater impact on young mothers than economical stressors, such as lack of income, Zeiders said.

The results of this study imply that the experiences parents have, particularly regarding discrimination, can greatly impact their children. While some of these experiences might not seem to impact the children, the research suggests they do indirectly through the impacts of the mother’s experience, according to Zeiders.

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Discrimination isn’t just harmful to the individual, it’s also harmful to the people around the individual. Children may begin to perceive their own experiences of discrimination, according to Zeiders. These experiences can impact everything from physical health to performance in school.

“We need to be focusing on how to equip parents and how to help parents cope with these experiences with discrimination,” Zeiders said. “This also means that when we think about a child’s own functioning, we look at the parent’s experiences as well.”

Related research suggests that helping children to foster a positive ethnic identity can help to mitigate these stressors.

This study was published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and is part of the University of Arizona’s Latino Families Research Initiative in the Norton School’s Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, and Families.

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