• Behavior disorder;
  • family processes;
  • hospitalization;
  • longitudinal studies;
  • outcome;
  • parenting;
  • psychiatric services

Objective:  Parents’ behavior management practices, parental stress, and family environment are highly pertinent to children's conduct problems. Preadolescents’ psychiatric hospitalization usually arises because of severe conduct problems, so the relationships of family-related variables to postdischarge functioning warrant investigation. This study examined postdischarge clinical course and select family factors to model outcomes via a) predictors measured at admission, b) predictors measured concurrently with outcome, and c) changes in predictor values from admission through follow-up.

Method:  In a prospective follow-up of 107 child psychiatry inpatients, caregivers completed rating scales pertaining to their child's behavior, parenting practices, parenting stress, caregiver strain, and their own psychological distress at admission and three, six, and 12 months after discharge.

Results:  The magnitude of reductions in parenting stress between admission and follow-up bore the strongest relationship to improvements in externalizing behavior. The largest and most sustained decreases in externalizing behavior arose among youngsters whose parents reported high parenting stress at admission and low parenting stress after discharge. By contrast, children whose parents reported low parenting stress at admission and follow-up showed significantly less postdischarge improvement. Parenting stress changes were not attributable to changes in behavioral symptoms. Parenting stress eclipsed relationships between behavior management practices and child outcomes, suggesting that parenting stress might have a mediational role.

Conclusions:  High initial parenting stress disposed to better outcomes over the year of follow-up. Consistently low stress predicted less improvement. Higher stress at admission may imply more advantageous parent–child relationships or motivation for subsequent persistence with treatment. Interventions that ameliorate high stress may warrant further study. Low parenting stress might signify disengagement, or, alternatively, that parents of some chronically impaired children become rather inured to fluctuations in behavioral problems. If confirmed, further examination of these and other accounts for a relationship between low parenting stress and suboptimal child outcome seems warranted.