Amy Nuttall, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Michigan State University, explores the burden some children face while helping with the caregiving responsibilities in the household.
Guided by a developmental psychopathology perspective, Nuttall’s program of research broadly focuses on processes of resilience and risk in the context of family stress with the broader goal of translating research into effective interventions. Nuttall is particularly interested in family relationships and roles (e.g., generational boundary dissolution), parenting practices, and child development under a variety of contexts of family stress (e.g., sibling with a disability, childhood bereavement, interparental conflict). Nuttall’s research utilizes a multi-method, multiple levels of analysis approach to study child development.
Children as Caregivers
It’s normal for children to perform caregiving in their families. For example, most children have chores or help take care of siblings. However, families experiencing high levels of stress may respond by charging children with increased caregiving responsibilities. For example, such responsibilities may include cooking dinner while parents work late, or serving as a confidante to a parent by discussing financial or marital stress. Although these kinds of responsibilities may be an adaptive way for a child to cope with stress by actively contributing to their family, these family obligations might also become too much for children. Research demonstrates that being charged with too many caregiving responsibilities may overburden children and lead to negative developmental consequences. My work focuses on how these experiences of overburdening caregiving responsibilities in childhood then impact how individuals parent.
I’ve conducted a series of studies examining mothers’ reports of their childhood experiences engaging in overburdening caregiving roles and then observed subsequent parenting behavior among first time mothers. My findings show that moms’ experiences of burdensome caregiving roles in childhood were associated with less accurate knowledge of child development and more difficulty responding to infants’ cues. Therefore, taking on too much caregiving in childhood may make it difficult for individuals to accurately judge their infants’ developmental needs once they become parents.
This work helps us understand what kind of parent education programs might be most helpful to mothers. For example, more moms attend prenatal classes than parenting classes after giving birth, and prenatal classes can be quite effective at teaching moms about child development. Therefore, prenatal parenting classes may be particularly useful for teaching accurate knowledge of child development and appropriate expectations about children’s abilities even before mothers give birth and begin parenting.