Trauma in Young Families Living in Urban Poverty and Parenting Under Stress Among Mothers and Fathers

By Erika Bocknek, Ph.D., LMFT and Holly Brophy-Herb, Ph.D.

Mothers’ and fathers’ engagement and support for young children after they experience distress teaches young children valuable skills in coping with negative emotions (Eisenberg, Cumberland, & Spinrad, 1998). This process is particularly critical in early childhood when these skills are emerging and in low-income, high stress populations (Raver, 2004).  Although dyadic (parent-child) regulation processes have been well studied, less is known about emotion socialization in the context of triads (mothers, fathers, and children) in this population. Among older children and their families, as well as among wealthier counterparts, research shows that characteristics such as family stress and parents’ psychopathology are related to how mothers and fathers support their children’s expression and management of negative emotions (Nelson, O’Brien, Blankson, Calkins, & Keane, 2009). In our work, we are investigating if triadic engagement (mother, father, and child) after stressful events is a context for family emotion socialization.  In short, we are interested in how joint interactions between family members serve as a context for children’s learning about emotions.  We expect that parents’ psychopathology and family stress will impact the quality of these family interactions.

Research Questions

In the current study, we explore the following research question: What factors in parental reports of their own mental health, as well as in their perceptions of their children and families’, predict their capacity to engage with their young children following a stressor? We are particularly interested in how parents provide emotional support to their Father and Sonyoung children after a stressful experience, especially when in the presence of another parent, and the ways in which “repairs” are made in interactions (such as when a disruption in the interaction occurs if a parent misinterprets a child’s cue).  Such supports and repairs are thought to promote children’s early emotional development, though this idea has not been investigated in the context of triads.

Overview of Study Methods

The current study describes data collected in a broader, ongoing study (Toddlers’ Emotional Development in Young Families; TEDY; PI: Bocknek) from urban families (89% African American) recruited from WIC centers. Two-year-old children (M=26.73 months), their biological mothers, and secondary caregivers (67% biological fathers) enrolled. Eighty-three percent of families reported annual incomes of $20,000 or less, and 16% were married. Both parents reported on child behavior, family functioning, and psychopathology. In addition, the families participated in a set of observed interaction tasks. The current study includes only those families in which the biological father participated (N=45) and describes data coded during a structured play task where mother-father-child triads reunited after a short separation and blew bubbles together for three minutes.

Behaviors were coded using a microsocial coding system that captured the occurrence of social bids and responses among children and parents [e.g., child vocalizing to parent and parent responding in a meaningful way; parent giving a direction and child promptly following the direction].  The duration of engagement among family members was also coded.  Specifically, the percent of time all three members of the triad were actively engaged (e.g., harmoniously interacting in a joint activity) with each other was assessed. Results suggested that families were relatively engaged most of the time (i.e., on average, families were engaged for 50.79% of the task). Indicators of engagement included reciprocal discussion, physical orientation toward each other, reciprocal activity involvement, and showing interest in what the other family members are doing (interrater reliability: k=.75). In addition, mothers as well as fathers self-reported on a set of questions pertaining to their own mental health, their perceptions of their children’s behavior, and their family dynamics. In the current study, we present data from parent reports of their own posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression symptoms, as well as their assessment of their child’s temperament, their co-parenting relationship, and chaos in the family/home environment.


Exposure to Trauma

Mothers as well as fathers reported high rates of exposure to potentially traumatic psychosocial events (e.g., family and community violence). Mothers were more likely than fathers to report histories of sexual and non-sexual assault by family members or intimates while fathers were more likely to report non-sexual assault by strangers and imprisonment. Both mothers and fathers reported high rates of potentially traumatic loss (e.g., unexpected death of a relative). See Table 1 for rates of exposure to potentially traumatic events.

Predictors of the Quality of Triadic (Family) Engagement

Parental psychopathology and stress. Mothers’ (but not fathers’) severity of PTSD symptoms was negatively associated with triadic (family) engagement. However, fathers’ (but not mothers’) reports of the chaos in the family environment was negatively associated with triadic engagement. Interestingly, parental depression was not significantly associated with engagement.

Child behavior. Fathers’ (but not mothers’) reports of children’s inhibitory control (an early form of self-regulation related to temperament style) was associated with family engagement.

Discussion/ Conclusions

These results suggest that families may be less likely to be engaged with each other following stress when mothers have higher PTSD symptoms, or when fathers perceive child or family disorganization. The research literature describes mixed findings as to whether or not PTSD symptoms impact parenting, though depression is typically a more consistent predictor of low parenting quality (Muzik, Bocknek, Richardson, Rosenblum, Thelen, & Seng, 2015). However, in the current sample, maternal PTSD emerged as a significant predictor of family engagement while depression did not. Because we measured engagement following a stressful event, the likelihood of transient PTSD symptoms being triggered was heightened. Appleyard and Osofsky (2003) have argued that parental PTSD may be associated with less sensitive parenting when parents are preoccupied with, and struggling to regulate, their own reactions to the stressful event. Our findings point to the primary role that mothers may play in reorganizing their families after occurrence of stress. Furthermore, these findings emphasize that mothers’ psychopathology is a significant risk factor for the family.

Fathers’ perceptions of their children and their homes were also significant predictors of the degree to which families positively re-engaged after the stressor task. From a theoretical perspective, scholars highlight the critical role that perception plays in helping families adapt to stress, such that greater adaptation occurs when family members believe that coping is possible because internal and external environments are predictable (Lavee, McCubbin, & Patterson, 1985). These findings suggest that fathers may play an important role in helping families to positively perceive internal resources to adapt. Furthermore, fathers’ perceptions compared to mothers’ may be more impactful on triadic engagement as function of the higher variability of overall paternal engagement compared to maternal engagement in this population.

Key Implications for Practice 

This study underscores the need to intervene with mothers and fathers in different ways in multi-stressed families.

  • Parents’ mental health requires significant support as means to support whole family adaptation, and posttraumatic stress disorder requires a special emphasis among populations in urban poverty for whom the risk for trauma is high.
  • Parental perceptions about their children’s and families’ capacity for adaptation may significantly impact engagement after stress and therefore there is likely a significant link between parental perception of coping capacities and parenting behaviors.


Appleyard, K., & Osofsky, J. D. (2003). Parenting after trauma: Supporting parents and caregivers in the treatment of children impacted by violence. Infant Mental Health Journal, 24(2), 111-125.

Eisenberg, N., Cumberland, A., & Spinrad, T. L. (1998). Parental socialization of emotion. Psychological Inquiry, 9(4), 241-273.

Lavee, Y., McCubbin, H. I., & Olson, D. H. (1987). The effect of stressful life events and transitions on family functioning and well-being. Journal of Marriage and The Family, 49(4), 857-873.

Muzik, M., Bocknek, E. L., Richardson, P., Broderick, A., Rosenblum, K. L., Thelen, K., & Seng, J. S. (2013). Mother-infant bonding in the first six months postpartum: The primacy of psychopathology in women with child abuse and neglect histories. Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 16(1), 29-38.

Nelson, J. A., O’Brien, M., Blankson, A. N., Calkins, S. D., & Keane, S. P. (2009). Family stress and parental responses to children’s negative emotions: Tests of the spillover, crossover, and compensatory hypotheses. Journal of Family Psychology, 23(5), 671-679.

Raver, C. C. (2004). Placing Emotional Self-Regulation in Sociocultural and Socioeconomic Contexts. Child Development, 75(2), 346-353.

Contact Information

For more information about this study contact:  Erika London Bocknek, PhD, LMFT, IMH-IV;

Table 1

Rates of Trauma Exposure Reported by Mothers and Fathers

Trauma Type Mothers Fathers
Serious accident, fire, explosion 41.7% 47.2%
Natural disaster 26.7% 23.1%
Non-sexual assault by family member/someone you know 43.3% 30.8%
Non-sexual assault by stranger 26.7% 46.2%
Sexual assault by family member/someone you know 30.0% 13.5%
Sexual assault by stranger 11.7% 0%
Military combat or war zone 0.0% 3.8%
Sexual contact with someone 5 years or more older when you were younger than 18 30.0% 25.0%
Imprisonment 10.0% 26.9%
Torture 3.3% 5.8%
Loss of loved one in unexpected or traumatic way 61.7% 68.2%
Other (includes infant loss, parent loss, gunshot wound, violent relationship) 9.1% 10.3%