Parenting Behavior Moderates the Association of Socioeconomic Risk and Infant Emotion

Authors: Parra, S., Huffhines, L., Coe, J., Seifer, R., Parade, S., (2021)

Over 16 million children in the United States are living in poverty (Children’s Defense Fund, 2012). Economic hardship is one of the most consistent predictors of adverse child outcomes (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2000), and children with greater socioeconomic risk are more vulnerable to behavioral and emotional problems. Although, much of this research has been conducted with older children, less is known about the impact of socioeconomic risk on infant emotional development, and the work in this domain has typically utilized questionnaire assessments of infant emotion. Furthermore, supportive caregiving relationships are thought to play a critical role in buffering children from socioeconomic risk, yet there is little research that explicitly tests this hypothesis. Therefore, we drew upon a longitudinal observational study of families living in poverty to test research questions aimed at understanding if 1) socioeconomic risk is associated with infant emotion dysregulation, and 2) if parenting behavior moderates this potential association.

295 mother-infant dyads participated in this study. Mothers were recruited from Women, Infants, and Children clinics in the prenatal period, and assessments occurred prenatally and at 6 and 12 months postpartum. Mothers were racially and ethnically diverse (40% Hispanic, 42% White, 19% Black, 7% biracial, 32% other races). Families were living in poverty. 60% had less than or equal to a high school diploma, 65% were unemployed in pregnancy, and 44% were single parents. Of infants, 53% were female.

To assess socioeconomic risk, we created a composite variable including maternal education, maternal unemployment status, and single parenthood derived from a demographic questionnaire. At 12 months postpartum, mother-infant dyads were observed during a 7-minute free play interaction and a 4-minute challenge task designed to elicit infant frustration (attractive toy in a locked box). Videotapes of the free play task were coded for maternal behavior using the Parent-Caregiver Involvement Scales (Farran et al., 1986) to assess the overall quality of observed parenting. Videotapes of the frustration task were coded for infant emotion dysregulation using procedures adapted from existing coding systems (Leerkes & Wong, 2012). Partial correlations controlling for infant age tested simple associations of socioeconomic risk and observed infant emotion dysregulation. Hierarchical multiple regression tested observed parenting behavior as a moderator of the association of socioeconomic risk and infant emotion dysregulation.

Socioeconomic risk was positively associated with infant emotion dysregulation (r = .28, p < .05). However, there was a significant interaction of socioeconomic risk and parenting behavior in the prediction of emotion dysregulation (B = -0.06, p < .05). As illustrated in Figure 1, socioeconomic risk was only associated with infant emotion dysregulation when the quality of observed parenting was low. When the quality of observed parenting was high, socioeconomic risk was not associated with observed parenting.

Results suggest that interventions to support parenting among families living in poverty have the potential to enhance infant emotional development. Our utilization of observational assessments of parenting and infant emotion dysregulation builds upon prior work that typically utilizes questionnaires. Additional applied and methodological implications will be discussed.

Poster presentation at the SRCD Virtual Biennial Meeting 2021.