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The Impact of Economic Stress on Family Mental Health: Examining Risk and Protective Factors through the Father Perspective


Economic stressors put parents and children at risk for changes and disturbances in personal relationships. Fathers’ employment and other factors related to work such as job security and working conditions impact the way in which they behave as parents. Some research has found that fathers who endured heavy financial loss became more irritable, tense, and explosive, which increased their tendency to interact negatively with their children. This often leads to an inability for parents to fulfill their parenting role, placing children at a great risk to be victims of maltreatment. The purpose of the present study was to contribute to our understanding of family functioning and coping through economic hardship with a specific focus on the father experience. Twelve fathers of children and adolescents facing economic hardship were recruited to participate in an in-person semi-structured interview to reflect on their experiences, including how the economic stress has impacted their self-identity, interpersonal relationships, and overall functioning within their fathering role. Fathers were recruited from two regions in the United States: Western and Southern. Participants had a mean age of 31.54 and were 41% White/European American, 23% Black/African American, 23% Hispanic, and 13% Other. Participants received $20 incentives in the form of grocery stores gift certificates for their participation. Interviews were audio recorded, transcribed verbatim, and checked for accuracy. Transcripts were analyzed for content using a combination of Applied Thematic Analysis and grounded theory. A model of risk and resilience pathways in response to economic stress emerged from the data. The resilience pathway was characterized by the utilization of various positive coping responses such as problem solving, emotional expression, emotional regulation, and perseverance with children serving as motivation. This pathway appeared to facilitate emotional closeness between fathers and their families. As a result, the participant discussed the ability to maintain a positive sense of self within their fathering role. This pathway ultimately resulted in the maintenance of overall adaptive functioning for fathers and their families. The risk pathway was characterized by an increase in problems in various areas of functioning. Specifically, fathers more closely following this pathway typically described an increase in withdrawal or avoidance, or an increase in emotional arousal or difficulty regulating emotions. As a result, fathers reported experiencing distancing within important relationships, such as the father-child relationship. These findings are important because they may provide potential implications for clinical interventions to help fathers facing economic stress. Specifically, the findings contribute further to our understanding of how families may function adaptively through economic stress.

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