Poverty, parenting and impulsivity

by Oct 7, 2012Poverty, Stress0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 4 minutes
This week was typical in my NHS therapy work in that just about all the cases I was involved with concerned children, mainly but not only boys, who have come from emotionally neglectful situations, but also dire poverty and very deprived environments,  and who seem to be a huge worry to professionals and other adults in their lives. It is striking how many are excluded from school, have few friends, cannot concentrate very much, have little capacity to understand their own and other people’s emotional states, and are very impulsive. Many of us in the field take this for granted now, but have struggled to both make sense of the exact mechanisms and to do enough to help with such issues.

A recent study [1] found that such patterns start very early. We know that when many of these kids reach school their capacity for concentration is already severely challenged.  Yet is appears that the effects are seen as early as 6 months. Melissa Clearfield of Associate Professor of Psychology at Whitman College  with colleagues looked at samples of babies living in poverty and also babies from high socio-economic backgrounds. Rather chillingly the kids from wealthier backgrounds displayed considerably greater attention overall and more increases in attention when the stimuli were more complex. Those from lower SES displayed more  inattention than their high SES peers at all ages and were less able to shift their attention when  stimuli became more complex. This was all seen by 6 months of age.

We have been learning in recent years how sensitive and attuned parenting makes a huge difference to a baby’s capacity to self-regulate and concentrate. As many researchers, such as Nancy Eisenberg [2], have shown, the quality of parenting a child receives greatly impacts whether or not they are likely to engage in impulsive and externalizing behaviours. In particular a parent’s capacity to help with emotional regulation affects a child’s capacity to manage their own emotions [3], and a securely attached child has better capacities generally to manage their own emotional states, and to get on with other children, as a result of sensitive parenting. It seems to be this ability to self-regulate that is key to successful peer relationships  and many other capacities[4]. The opposite sadly is also true and as research shows [5] there is a process of mutual reinforcement, whereby harsh parenting, negative emotional reactivity, and poor emotion regulation in  more coercive early parent-child interactions further diminishes children’s emotional regulatory capacities and affects peer relationships as early as kindergarten.

A danger with all such research is mother blaming. What the demographic and socio-economic research helps us make sense of is how the way society works, and in particular poverty and unemployment, mediates parenting. For example, in a large sample of babies a clear link was found between increased levels of stress as measured by salivary cortisol, and the lack of executive functioning and self-regulation [6], and another recent study also showed that being a family in poverty, and indeed also being a single parent, is linked with having children with lower levels of effortful control, and again the mediating factor seems to be disruptions to the stress system (the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis  ) and levels of cortisol. Socio-economic conditions are not the whole story, there is much else to consider of course, such as inter-generational abuse, the quality of the local environment and much more, but what we are discovering are the ways in which socio-economic patterns and structures  get written into people’s biological beings and in turn affect emotional relationships.


[1]        M. W. Clearfield and K. E. Jedd, ‘The Effects of Socio‐Economic Status on Infant Attention’, Infant and Child Development, 2012.

[2]        N. Eisenberg, Q. Zhou, T. L. Spinrad, C. Valiente, R. A. Fabes, and J. Liew, ‘Relations Among Positive Parenting, Children’s Effortful Control, and Externalizing Problems: A Three‐Wave Longitudinal Study’, Child development, vol. 76, no. 5, pp. 1055–1071, 2005.

[3]        E. Bariola, E. Gullone, and E. K. Hughes, ‘Child and adolescent emotion regulation: The role of parental emotion regulation and expression’, Clinical child and family psychology review, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 198–212, 2011.

[4]        J. M. Contreras, K. A. Kerns, B. L. Weimer, A. L. Gentzler, and P. L. Tomich, ‘Emotion regulation as a mediator of associations between mother–child attachment and peer relationships in middle childhood.’, Journal of Family Psychology, vol. 14, no. 1, p. 111, 2000.

[5]        L. V. Scaramella and L. D. Leve, ‘Clarifying parent–child reciprocities during early childhood: The early childhood coercion model’, Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 89–107, 2004.

[6]        C. Blair, D. A. Granger, M. Willoughby, R. Mills‐Koonce, M. Cox, M. T. Greenberg, K. T. Kivlighan, and C. K. Fortunato, ‘Salivary cortisol mediates effects of poverty and parenting on executive functions in early childhood’, Child development, 2011.

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