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Reaction to Great Recession: Moms screaming at their kids

Monday, 5 Aug 2013 | 4:29 PM ET
Sharon Dominick | E+ | Getty Images

Here's another downside to the Great Recession: It made some moms tougher on their children.

A research paper released Monday found that some moms' reactions to the 2007-09 recession included shouting more at their kids and even taking aggressive action, such as yanking or spanking them.

The responses weren't just among mothers who had lost a job or otherwise been personally affected by the financial crisis. Instead, the researchers found that these moms became harder on their kids once the general economy started to deteriorate, perhaps because it made them worried and anxious about something bad happening.

(Read more: What is happening to the American Dream?)

"It's the change in the rate of unemployment—the fear of unemployment—that stimulated the harsh parenting," said Irwin Garfinkel, a professor of contemporary urban problems at Columbia University's School of Social Work and one of the authors of the study.

The silver lining is that those same moms became better parents after the economy improved.

"These mothers, while they do worse in poor environments, do better in good environments," Garfinkel said.

The findings were from a long-running study of the families of about 5,000 children born in 20 American cities between 1998 and 2000. This study did not look at dads, he said.

For this finding, the researchers tested whether the women had a genetic variance that the researchers believe makes people more sensitive in general.

(Read more: Dreams delayed: Young people put off parenthood)

Though there were incidences of harsh parenting among the other participants, the rise during the recession (and subsequent improvement) was more prevalent among the sensitive ones, who made up about half of the mothers studied, Garfinkel said.

Nevertheless, most moms, even in the sensitive group, weren't harsh parents.

Other research has shown that both mothers and fathers have a more difficult time being patient parents when the household has financial problems.

Rand Conger, distinguished professor of psychology, human development and family studies at the University of California, Davis, said money worries can lead to increased irritability, depression and anxiety.

"You have only so much emotional energy, and some of that emotional energy that you would typically have for investing in the lives of your children gets lost," said Conger, who was not involved in this research.

(Read more: Weak economy means fewer babies—for now)

Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, said parents dealing with economic stress are sometimes more likely to focus on bad behavior and not notice the good things their kids—or even partners—do.

They "pay attention to the negative and react more strongly" to it, said Coontz, who also was not involved in Garfinkel's research.

Conger, at UC Davis, said his research has shown that kids in these environments can start performing worse in school, or have more social and emotional problems.

Such effects can be mitigated if the stress isn't long term, however, according to Coontz .

"Kids are fairly resilient," Coontz said. "If you're bouncing back within a year or so, it may not have a long-term effect."

—By CNBC's Allison Linn. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn and Google or send her an email.

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