Objective: The use of harsh discipline is a risk factor for child maltreatment and is more common among families in which mothers have previously experienced trauma. We sought to understand the stressors experienced by low-income traumatized mothers and the perceived impact of those stressors on their discipline approaches.
Methods: We conducted 30 in-depth qualitative interviews with low-income mothers with a history of trauma. We triangulated the results with experts in behavioral health, and with a subset of the informants themselves, to ensure data reliability.
Results: We identified the following themes: (1) Repetitive child behaviors are the most stressful. (2) Mothers commonly cope by taking time away; this can result in prolonged unsupervised periods for children. (3) Harsh discipline is used deliberately to prevent future behavior problems. (4) Mothers relate their children's negative behaviors to their own past experiences; in particular, those who have suffered domestic violence fear that their children will be violent adults.
Conclusions: Our findings suggest that trauma-informed interventions to promote positive discipline and prevent child maltreatment should help mothers predict and plan for stressful parent-child interactions; identify supports that will allow them to cope with stress without leaving their children for prolonged periods; and explicitly address long-term goals for their children and the impact of different discipline approaches.