Unemployment and Work Interruption among African American Single Mothers: Effects on Parenting and Adolescent Socioemotional Functioning


  • This research was supported by grant R01MH44662 from the National Institute of Mental Health and a Faculty Scholar Award in Child Mental Health from the William T. Grant Foundation, both awarded to the first author. Appreciation is expressed to the families who participated in the study, to Steve Nikoloff, Director of Research and Testing, Flint Community Schools, Flint, Michigan, and to Alice Hart, Jane Zehnder-Merrill, and the research staff at Project for Urban and Regional Affairs, University of Michigan at Flint for their invaluable assistance and cooperation in recruitíng and interviewing families. We also acknowledge with much gratitude Eve Trager, Lisa Duncan, and Heidi Schweingruber for their competent preparation and processing of the interview schedules and Kathryn Clabuesch, Robin Soler, Sudakshina Raar, and Katherine Weber for their assistance in data coding.


Using interview data from a sample of 241 single African American mothers and their seventh- and eighth-grade children, this study tests a model of how 2 economic stressors, maternal unemployment and work interruption, influence adolescent socioemotional functioning. In general, these economic stressors affected adolescent socioemotional functioning indirectly, rather than directly, through their impact on mothers' psychological functioning and, in turn, parenting behavior and mother-child relations. Current unemployment, but not past work interruption, had a direct effect on depressive symptomatology in mothers. As expected, depressive symptomatology in mothers predicted more frequent maternal punishment of adolescents, and this relation was fully mediated by mothers' negative perceptions of the maternal role. More frequent maternal punishment was associated with increased cognitive distress and depressive symptoms in adolescents, and consistent with predictions, these relations were partially mediated by adolescents' perceptions of the quality of relations with their mothers. Increased availability of instrumental support, as perceived by mothers, predicted fewer depressive symptoms in mothers, less punishment of adolescents, and less negativity about the maternal role. Both economic stressors were associated with higher levels of perceived financial strain in mothers, which in turn predicted adolescents' perceptions of economic hardship. Adolescents who perceived their families as experiencing more severe economic hardship reported higher anxiety, more cognitive distress, and lower self-esteem.